The Big Question: Is Kauto Star vs Denman the greatest showdown in horse-racing history?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

At 3.30 this afternoon, Kauto Star and Denman will be lining up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. This is the most prestigious race on the jumps racing calendar and is the main attraction of the four-day Cheltenham Festival, which is often described as "The Equine Olympics" or "The Greatest Show On Turf".

The two horses, who share the same trainer, have never met before, and the anticipation has become more frenzied as the confrontation has approached. As John McCririck, the Channel 4 pundit, has said: "This build-up has been more akin to that of a boxing heavyweight title fight than a horse race." He should know.

So what makes Kauto Star and Denman so special?

Put simply, they are two very good horses who also happen to be trained in neighbouring stables and will arrive at the racecourse in adjoining horse-boxes. But there the similarity stops. What makes this match-up so fascinating is the contrasting styles of the protagonists. Kauto Star (pronounced "Carto" by some and "Kate-o" by others) is swift and nimble while Denman is a big brute of a beast. Their respective nicknames – "The Maserati" and "The Tank" – sum up the contrast nicely.

Over the winter months, racing insiders and enthusiasts have become entrenched in their opinions over which horse will prevail. The respective owners have only added to the bickering. At a promotional launch last week, Denman's joint-owner, the professional gambler Harry Findlay, declared his horse would "crush Kauto", while in the opposite corner, Clive Smith, an owner of golf courses, retorted that "Kauto will quell this Denman upstart". Ding, ding.

What has been the effect of the rivalry?

Huge, huge, huge. A sell-out crowd of 65,000 will be at Prestbury Park for the event and the parent company of Cheltenham racecourse has sought to stoke up the rivalry between the two sets of fans by taking the novel step of selling thousands of T-shirts emblazoned with images of Kauto Star or Denman. The touts, who sell tickets on the black market outside the gates, are reporting unprecedented trade, with one saying yesterday, "they are flying out of our hands and money seems no object". Meanwhile, the bookmakers are getting just as excited. Ladbrokes have estimated that £40m will be backed on the Gold Cup, with just £4m of that being wagered on the other 13 horses in the race. As the contest will take six and a half minutes, that works out to be a £100,000 in bets for every second of action. Inevitably, this will be a record.

What's their history?

Kauto Star won this race last year and the eight-year-old did so in enough style to suggest he would be without peer for some time. But Denman also visited the winner's enclosure in 2007, the manner of his Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Chase success prompting experts to mutter that here was a potential equal – or whisper it "superior" – of the Gold Cup champion.

This season, Kauto Star has continued his good form, easily landing the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day and showing his versatility by winning a much shorter race at Ascot.

But Denman has been just as impressive, if not more so. Incredibly, his record now reads 13 races, 12 wins and one second place, and his easy triumphs in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury and at Leopardstown had punters sprinting down to the bookies. Kauto Star has remained favourite for the race – just. His best price is 11-10, while Denman is now as low as 5-4. Conceivably the latter could even displace the former at the head of market by race-time.

Is it just chance they have emerged now?

Well, yes and no. Horses this good normally only come along once every decade or so, although in recent times the triple champion Best Mate would undoubtedly have proved a formidable opponent. They are good, but we are not sure yet how good. The eeffect that their trainer Paul Nicholls has had should not be underestimated, either. He has proved to be a master of getting the most out of high-class horses, and another, less astute handler, might have fallen short with one or both animals.

Who does the trainer think will win?

Paul Nicholls is understandably loathe to declare which horse he fancies, although he has repeatedly said that "Kauto Star will be hard to beat". A dead-heat might be his perfect result and it could even be that close. "This is the most exciting race of my whole life," said Nicholls last week. "I'm sure it will never happen again."

So what have been racing's other great showdowns?

There have been many, although perhaps not one that has so captured the public's imagination since Arkle beat Mill House in the Gold Cup 44 years ago. Racing is split into two main types – flat and National Hunt. On the flat, the rivalry between Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard was one of the most famous, but there seem to be fewer "long-awaited" duels than in National Hunt. That is probably because the competitive careers of flat horses tend to be much shorter. In steeple-chasing, horses are around for longer, allowing time for rivalries to establish temselves.

Was Arkle the best horse of all time?

The bay gelding was definitely one of the best over the jumps, as he proved when defeating Mill House. Hitherto, this has been the biggest showdown in National Hunt folklore. Arkle, a seven-year-old trained in Ireland, prevailed by five lengths (approximately 12 yards) over the defending champion and the pride of England, in a race during which the pair seemed joined by the fetlocks. There was a nationalistic edge to this head-to-head as well. Many Irish refused to leave after racing had finished, as they continued their celebrations. Whatever happens today, the scenes will be no less ecstatic, the unique Cheltenham atmosphere sharpened by the addition to the programme of races that would have taken place on wind-blown Wednesday.

So who will win?

That depends on who you believe and what you favour in life: the brilliance or the brawn. In terms of the jockeys, Ruby Walsh on Kauto Star is unarguably more experienced than Sam Thomas, although Thomas is Welsh and the Welsh are having a jolly good time of it in sport of late. There is, of course, always the possibility that neither horse passes the post first (Exotic Dancer and Halcon Genelardais look the best of the rest), but for most punters that would be a big anti-climax.

Will Kauto Star prove too good for Denman?

Yes...

* Kauto Star's three wins in his three races so far this season have been largely devoid of jumping howlers that dogged his early days

* The winds have dried out the ground and it is thought that Kauto Star will be more suited to a quicker surface than Denman

* Ruby Walsh could have ridden Denman if he so wished. The shrewd Irishman opted to remain on board the champ

No...

* Despite the improvement in Kauto Star's jumping, Denman still holds the edge in this key department

* Kauto Star suffered a foot infection after his last race and it is not yet known if he is fully recovered or 100 per cent match fit

* Denman is still improving, and his pedigree suggests he will appreciate the test of stamina more than his rival

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