Rather than the eye-filling spectacle of mighty Denman powering past the post to take the Aon Chase by 20 lengths, the more telling sight here yesterday was that of the horse who trailed in last of the four.
The sprightly front-runner Ollie Magern was the only one to take on the 1-4 favourite, but a Mini may as well have tried to race with a Mercedes. The effort of trying to match strides with the relentless, uncompromising gallop set by his rival was simply too much and gallant Ollie, past his prime but no slouch, was out on his feet at the end.
"That was just what we wanted," said Denman's trainer,Paul Nicholls, though referring to the winner's ideal Gold Cup preparation rather than the discomfiture of the vanquished. "Everyone knows what an engine he's got, and that will have tuned it up nicely."
Sam Thomas, handed the responsibility of the Cheltenham ride this week after stable No 1 Ruby Walsh elected to stick with reigning king Kauto Star, locked Denman into his metronomic rhythm from the off, and kept him rolling. "On some horses," he said, "these small-field races can be tricky and get tactical. But on a horse like this, it's straightforward. We do our thing, and let the others do what they want."
Denman's other attribute is his accurate technique over a fence, yet for once there was a blip, when he guessed at the fifth-last, taking off too soon. But Thomas was unconcerned. "He was a bit keen and long into it, but he never felt like falling," he said, "and it might just have been a wake-up call, because he was perfect again over the last four.
"One of the great things about him is that he simply loves jumping; he's no sooner over one fence than he's looking for the next. He may be a big horse, but he rides light, and he's as handy and clever as a 13.2 [hand] pony."
Some pony. Denman, who carries the green colours of Nicholls' business partner Paul Barber, stands nearly 17 hands and weighs nearly 600 kilos. He is the heavyweight challenge to Kauto Star – who lives in the adjacent box at their Somerset yard and is due for his pre-Festival outing at Ascot on Saturday. The pair are the first two in the Gold Cup betting, miles clear of the rest.
"It must have been a tough call for Ruby," added the 23-year-old Thomas, "because these are two exceptional horses. But I was grateful for his early decision, which meant I could have the match practice today."
Walsh may have another hard choice come Cheltenham after Master Minded (7-4) beat the even-money favourite Voy Por Ustedes, winner of last year's Queen Mother Champion Chase, fair and square by five lengths in the Game Spirit Chase.
The five-year-old, like Kauto Star owned by Clive Smith, is now challenging his stablemate Twist Magic for favouritism for the two-mile crown, though would be ruled out of Cheltenham by lively ground. That would be small comfort to Voy Por Ustedes's trainer, Alan King, whose pride and joy was trounced by Twist Magic earlierthis term. "This is getting very boring," he said.
In the first two novices' races Walsh scored on the hurdler Pasco and chaser Ornais, but to the relief of bookmakers the Nicholls bandwagon came to a halt when the 5-2 favourite Five Dream was only seventh in the Totesport Trophy. The £85,000 handicap hurdle went to Wing-man, trained by Gary Moore.Reuse content