Champion trainer Paul Nicholls is odds-on to bring the Gold Cup back to his Somerset yard for the second time come March. But it is the reigning king, Kauto Star, who must be shifting nervously on his throne after the pretender, his stablemate Denman, produced a performance of stunning class and power to win the Hennessy Gold Cup under top-weight here yesterday. The two are joint-favourites at around 2-1 for the Cheltenham crown.
Denman, ridden by Sam Thomas, came home 11 lengths clear of Dream Alliance, who was followed in by Character Building and Maison du Berlais. But this was an occasion when only the winner, on a different plane of ability to the rest, mattered.
"Awesome", said the trainer. "Awesome," echoed the jockey. And history may judge it so, for a measure of the massive liver chestnut's achievement is in the formbooks. In 50 previous runnings of the three-and-a-quarter-mile contest only four had triumphed from the top of the handicap. Three of them were giants of the game: Mill House, Arkle and Burrough Hill Lad, who all won as Gold Cup winners.
Denman, who may yet join them in stature metaphorically, is physically a huge horse he stands 17 hands and weighs in at 578kg and an impost of 11st 12lb and the concession of 19lb to the second would not concern him as much as some. But set against that were the atrocious conditions: muddy ground and a blustery squall to gallop into.
Thomas steadied the gelding, who was running for the first time since winning the novices' title at Cheltenham in March and paraded before yesterday's fray with an up-for-it glint in his eye and spring in his step, in fourth place as James White set a sensible pace on the veteran Sir Rembrandt. The seven-year-old, who carries the green colours of his part-owner Paul Barber, jumped to the lead at the water jump opposite the stands with an extravagant bound that drew a gasp of admiration. From there, even with a lap to go, it was a matter of how far.
"The first circuit was crucial," said Nicholls. "We knew that if he tanked off too keenly we'd be in trouble because he wouldn't have got home. But once he relaxed and settled, I could breathe easily. And I knew that if he turned for home in front, he wouldn't get beat. And the frightening thing is that he will improve for the run."
Thomas, Nicholls' No 2, is deputising for the injured Ruby Walsh and is on a dream roll, having partnered Kauto Star to victory at Haydock the previous Saturday and ridden Mr Pointment to Grand National favour-itism at Aintree the following day. Results breed confidence, and the 23-year-old timed his turning of the screw perfectly as he let Denman surge awayhalfway down the back straight.
"He never put a foot wrong at any fence," he said. "He settled beautifully; in fact I was surprised how well, I had expectedhim to be a bit keener on his first run of the season. He is powerful, athletic and jumps with tremendous scope. After last weekend I didn't think things could get much better, but this fella is something else. After I went clear I had a look round and I couldn't believe how strung out they were. I was hardly out of first gear at that stage."
Denman started 5-1 second favourite yesterday; the 9-2 market leader, Snowy Morning, fell at the seventh.
Denman is the same age as Kauto Star, but a year behind in experience. They live in adjacent boxes at Manor Farm, but though they eyeball each other every morning they will not do so on a racecourse until the Gold Cup. The champ will next run in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day; Denman heads for the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown three days later.
"While he's stable jockey," said Nicholls, "it's Ruby who will decide who he'll ride at Cheltenham, and he'll have to be man enough to make the choice."