The chase to join the turf's all-time greats: 'Kauto is like Tiger Woods... Denman is Ali'

The waiting is almost over. Today, the most eagerly anticipated Gold Cup duel in history takes place. Chris McGrath speaks to those who know the stable-sharing gladiators best for the inside track on a race for the ages
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For such a fresh-faced young fellow, Dan Skelton talks horses with an unexpectedly practised air. He has cheeks like a cider apple, and you could easily picture him riding across the crest of the Mendips with a ruminative straw clamped in that toothy grin. But his evaluation of the greatest steeplechasing showdown of modern years discloses a precocious perspective.

"Every great horse that comes along is compared with Arkle," Skelton says. "And that's not fair. It's the same with every great footballer, and George Best. You can't make a fair comparison. But these horses are going to meet. They are going to meet, and it will be signed and sealed. If one of them had come along five years after the other, everyone would have been wondering which of them was best. Racing is so lucky that they happen to have arrived together. We'll be able to look back and say: 'They met, it was settled'."

The two horses, of course, are Kauto Star and Denman. Stabled in adjacent stalls at home, this afternoon they finally meet in anger in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. Their stand-off is captivating millions who would never, as a rule, give racehorses a second thought. For those who tend them every day, it is no less unusual – one of those very rare occasions when horses actually stick to their script. So many different things might have derailed either horse since they both won at the Festival last year. Yet here they are, having done nothing in the meantime but raise the stakes.

"They are the first two horses I see when I leave my house every morning," Skelton said. "It's spine-tingling to think how, in a few years from now, it will sink in, what I've been part of. I hope I have a good few years ahead of me, but I know I'll never see the like of this again."

His grasp of the privilege can be traced to both nature and nurture. He is the son of the champion show jumper, Nick Skelton, and has spent the past four and a half years as assistant to another exceptional achiever, albeit with a different type of horseflesh. During that time Paul Nicholls has made his Somerset stables the most powerful in the land, but even he is entering uncharted territory today.

For while Kauto Star has established himself as unquestionably one of the best steeplechasers of the post-war era – certainly the best since Desert Orchid, perhaps the best since Arkle himself – nobody in the stable is prepared to guess whether he is even the best presently in their care. "In the yard, people base their favourite on character, not ability," Skelton said. "Everyone has seen their ability, and nobody knows how to split them. We're a very close-knit community here. First and foremost, we just want them to come back. And hopefully we'll find out which one is the best."

The one member of the team obliged to make a commitment is Ruby Walsh, the stable jockey, who won the Gold Cup on Kauto Star last year, and the novice championship, the SunAlliance Chase, on Denman. But while he declared early for Kauto Star, that was largely a matter of loyalty to the reigning champion – and gave Sam Thomas, his understudy, another chance to ride Denman in his rehearsal at Newbury last month.

Only some kind of monster, plainly, could beat Kauto Star. But the point is that Denman, so far, has barely stirred out of the swamp. He has slid out of the mud and devoured everything in his path, without giving any hint of his true proportions. Everyone knows how good Kauto Star is, that he is exceptional. Nobody has been able to hazard how good Denman might be. All that should change today.

"Kauto is like Roger Federer, or Tiger Woods," Skelton said. "He's very good, but unassuming. Denman is perhaps more like Muhammed Ali. Very good, but very assuming as well."

Kauto Star won the Gold Cup comfortably last year and, if anything, has looked even better this time round. Last season, he was still jumping inattentively. This season, he has not just been immaculate over his fences, he has been stylish and aggressive. He has a swagger nowadays.

But it may be that this, his most intimidating feature, develops into his weakest link as well. The Gold Cup, run over three and a quarter miles with a steep climb to the winning post, is sometimes reduced to a brutish test of staying power. Last year, a steady early pace permitted several inferior horses to stay with Kauto Star even as far as the turn for home, and he settled the race with a characteristic change of gear. But Denman is likely to make this a very different kind of race. A horse that engulfs his rivals with the merciless tempo of his galloping and jumping, he is likely to be ridden aggressively.

Denman is owned by the screwball partnership of Paul Barber, a patrician dairy farmer, and Harry Findlay, a plain-speaking, fast-talking professional gambler. Both believe that their horse has the potential to draw the sting from Kauto Star, especially if overnight rain gets into the ground.

"I remember asking Ruby, after they won over two and a half miles round Cheltenham last season, if he would get three," Barber said. "And Ruby replied that he would stay six. What flaws are there in Kauto Star? None whatsoever. But I do not believe any horse can show such brilliant speed over two and a half miles round Ascot, as he did in his last run, and truly stay three and a quarter miles round Cheltenham in soft ground. That's our one real chance of beating him: if the ground is soft. On good ground, I think we have a chance. On soft ground, I think we'll win."

Findlay promises no excuses, regardless of the ground. "If Kauto comes off the bridle at any stage, we've won," he declared. "If you're behind us, and you come off the bridle, you're done for!"

Kauto Star is owned by an entrepreneur named Clive Smith, whose fortune, ironically, was founded upon the conversion of an old racecourse in Surrey into a golf course. "The going could be a factor," he acknowledged. "Denman's a marvellous animal with a relentless gallop, who has improved all season. But I think Kauto Star has himself improved since last year: he's more mature, and his jumping is more refined."

The respective owners can explore the margins between hope and bias, but in the yard itself there is a scrupulous refusal to predict the outcome. As head lad, and effectively right-hand man to Nicholls, Clifford Baker knows the two horses as intimately as anyone. He rides Kauto Star every morning, and his tribute tempts you to assume that here, at last, is one committed vote.

"In 20 years, I've been head lad to three different Gold Cup winners," he says with quiet pride. "There's not many can say that. If any. I've been lucky enough to ride some exceptional horses over the years. See More Business, Azertyuiop, Call Equiname, Very Promising, Viking Flagship, Charter Party. And I'd have to say he's the best I've ridden. I knew a long time ago that he was very special. He has that magical thing, the speed and the stamina. Usually a horse will either be quick, or it will stay. But he's one of the rare ones that can do both."

But not even Baker will admit to doubt about the upstart Denman. "He has improved, probably a lot more than people think," he says. "At the end of the day, he's an Irish three-mile chaser, and those horses do keep improving. We won't know how good he is until he gets beaten – if he is beaten.

"They couldn't be more different. But horses come in all shapes and sizes, and no shape or size ever means that one is necessarily going to be better than another. Denman is sure to keep going, and I'm sure Sam will try to keep a bit up his sleeve for the hill, whereas Ruby will be looking for that turn of foot he showed round Ascot and Kempton. Denman won't fold. He's all power. Kauto is that bit sharper, has that bit more speed. He's more of an athlete. He's quicker, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll win the Gold Cup."

So, what of Nicholls himself? As usual, the champion trainer has been absorbing the pressures and obligations of his situation without betraying any obvious saturation. Over the past year, he has been answered a thousand versions of the same question with admirable forbearance. He, too, refuses to commit himself, but cannot disguise an instinctive loyalty to Kauto Star, rejecting Findlay's hypothesis that his stamina might be vulnerable in a more "traditional" Gold Cup.

"He's the reigning champion, so Denman has got to knock him off his perch," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind about Kauto Star staying the trip. If it were really testing, I suppose that might just swing it Denman's way a little bit. But whatever beats Kauto Star is going to have to be exceptional. I know Denman's coming up the ranks, but we don't yet know how good he is.

"Harry describes Denman as a tank, and he's not far wrong. Kauto is a bit of a poseur now. He has that class. But what I would say is that Cheltenham is definitely the track that suits Kauto best. It's left-handed, which he prefers, and having that bit of speed always helps round there.

"They won't be at each other's throats, that's for sure. Sam will know that Denman needs a nice gallop, so he'll either use a lead or bowl along. If they do go round that last bend together, there's going to be some roar. And if they jump the second-last together, the best horse will win."

It may be that his fidelity to Kauto Star reflects something of the defensiveness that infected Nicholls this time last year, when Kauto Star still invited the odd quibble. After a taxing season, he had run an ungainly trial at Newbury, again making a shuddering mistake at the last fence. At Cheltenham, Nicholls rather spoilt his moment of glory by rounding on the horse's "knockers".

On the whole, however, it has been greatly to the sport's advantage that these two horses should have ended up in his care. His yard is run with a refreshing candour. There are never any dark agendas. As a result, racing can welcome many curious new witnesses today with utter certainty in the probity of the entertainment.

"Whatever happens, the great thing is that everyone will enjoy it and shake hands afterwards," Nicholls said. "We always play it straight down the line here, and everyone knows where they stand. There's a lot of banter, but the bottom line is that nobody knows what the result will be.

"If there is [jealousy], I don't see it. Remember, I came here with eight horses. We have built the whole thing up from there. We were fifth in line to see Denman. But Adrian Maguire [the former jockey, now training in Ireland] bullied us all afternoon, to come and see this horse. And the moment he came out of the box, I said: 'We're having him'."

Denman cost £80,000, Kauto Star £280,000. Together, they are priceless. Of course, in their humble, animal rituals, they are innocent of all that. They have a grille in the party wall of their stalls. "For all we know, they could be psyching each other out at the back of the stable every night," Skelton said. "You wouldn't know what might be going on in their minds." Nicholls has no doubt the two horses are "mates". When Kauto Star returned from his last race, at Ascot, Denman was waiting with his head over the door.

That was the night when it looked as if the showdown might not happen, after all. Kauto Star was lame. Luckily, the vet only had to drain a build-up of pus from under a shoe, first thing next morning, and he was sound again. The second person in his box, when he returned from Ascot, had been Barber, who also happens to be Nicholls' landlord. "He was there again first thing in the morning, as well, when the vet came," Nicholls recalled. "And all he kept saying was that we simply had to get Kauto to Cheltenham, to run against his horse, that the match had to come off."

Barber assented. "This race doesn't belong to me, Harry and Clive," he said. "It belongs to everyone. It belongs to the people."

Who's your money on?

James Nesbitt, actor: "I'm hoping and praying Kauto Star wins. Denman is a fine horse, but I want Kauto to win for so many reasons. He's one of those horses who touch you deeply – he's maybe one for the ages. The closer it gets the more exciting it is."

Jonathan Davies, former Wales rugby player: "Kauto Star is an impressive champion and will be hard to beat, especially with Ruby Walsh on board. I always take a look at the jockeys when sticking my money down and think Walsh is one of the best. That said, Denman is ridden by Abergavenny's Sam Thomas. And we Welsh are winning everything at the moment."

Jim Sheridan, film director: "I'm pretty sure Kauto Star will beat Denman, and will be having a bet to back up that opinion. The other factor that convinces me is Ruby Walsh – what a fabulous jockey."

Peter Shilton, former England goalkeeper: "I would go for Kauto Star. I think he's the classier. He's like a machine with gears, whereas Denman at the end of races sometimes shows a bit of temperament. But you know what's going to happen after all this hype? It will be a complete anticlimax and an outsider will win."

Sid Waddell, darts commentator: "Which is the one Harry Findlay owns? Denman? Then it's Denman for me, because Harry and I go a long way back and he's not nearly as daft as he talks. He's like Einstein the way he works out all the equations and probabilities, and I should think he's put at least £1.9m on Denman winning, which is good enough for me."

Will Greenwood, former England rugby player: "Denman's done all his best work on the soft, so if the gales have firmed up the ground then I'm sure Kauto Star will be cheered to the winner's enclosure."

Jimmy White, snooker player: "Kauto is a fantastic animal and is in good shape. Saying that, I'm good mates with Harry [Findlay] so even though my head is telling me that Kauto will win, my heart will be willing on Harry's."

Dickie Bird, former cricket umpire: "When I go racing I go for the social side and not to bet. But this race has captured my imagination. With limited knowledge, I'll go for Denman. Kauto Star is a great champion but I feel the young tiro will have his measure."