Nicholls duo head for Gold Cup showdown

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The Independent Online

The two horses with the most potential to light up the nascent jump season meet head-to-head over their stable doors every day; reigning champion chaser Kauto Star and last term's best staying novice Denman occupy adjoining boxes at their trainer Paul Nicholls' yard and share an early-morning nicker of anticipation as the breakfast feed buckets arrive.

But there will be no eyeballing in anger until March, for the outlined programmes for the pair mean they will not meet until the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Kauto Star, the 2-1 favourite to retain his crown at Prestbury Park, is scheduled to start off in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree in 16 days time, with the pretender Denman, 4-1 second favourite for the Gold Cup, due to make his senior debut in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby the following weekend.

Then for Kauto Star it's the Betfair Chase at Haydock in late November, the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, and the Gold Cup. If all goes to plan at Wetherby, Denman will take in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury and then the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown at Christmastide.

The two seven-year-olds are the heavyweights of the game, one of them more literally than the other. Denman is not much taller than Kauto Star, but is a size bigger in his rugged, old-fashioned frame, and Nicholls warned that the liver chestnut will be better for his seasonal shakedown in West Yorkshire. "He is different to Kauto Star in that he is heavier and stronger," said the trainer, "and he is a harder horse to get fit. He takes a lot of work and one of the hardest tasks we will have is getting him ready to be his best first time out. So whatever he does he will improve for the run." Denman won all his five chases in his first season, culminating in a tremendously impressive 10-length success in the Royal & SunAlliance Chase at the Festival. "After Wetherby, he will definitely get an entry in the Hennessy. And if he ends up carrying 11st 12lb in the race, it won't be a bother to him as he is a big horse, and horses like him have to run well in a Hennessy off top weight if they are going for a Gold Cup off level weights. The other option for him is an intermediate chase at Sandown the following week, in case he doesn't run in the Hennessy. He is just a novice coming through so he does have to improve and up his game again, but we are very pleased with him.

"But he won't take on Kauto Star until Cheltenham and the Gold Cup. It would be pointless running them together beforehand and there are enough races so we don't have to."

Kauto Star, who will be reunited with Ruby Walsh over the schooling fences at home next week, was unbeaten in six starts last year, but Nicholls acknowledges that the Aintree starting point will be a much sterner task this term than last, when he beat stablemate Armaturk, giving him 9lb.

"He'll have to give a horse like My Way de Solzen 20lb," he said, "and it will be amazing if he can. But we've got to accept he'll be beaten sometime."