Donn's Articles » Kauto Star v Denman

Kauto Star v Denman

When Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali squared up to each other in Madison Square Garden on 8th March 1971 in what the media dubbed The Fight of the Century, they couldn’t have known that it was merely the beginning of their rivalry, not the definitive end to it.

So it was with Denman and Kauto Star, Cheltenham Gold Cup day, 14th March 2008, Denman the tank, the Frazier, the mullucker with the superior bulk and power, Kauto the fleet-footed Ali, with superior speed, a sharpness of mind and of limb. The match-up ignited the public’s imagination, racing fans wore rosettes and baseball caps, Denman or Kauto; the media asked the question, Denman or Kauto, and demanded a disyllabic answer. It was the closest that racing came to bursting into mainstream since the great Arkle/Mill House rivalry of the 1960s.

As in Madison Square Garden in 1971, brawn and power won out over speed and pace at Cheltenham in 2008, as Denman simply piled on the pressure and pummelled his rival into submission.

Fast forward 12 months to Gold Cup day 2009, different story. Denman had spent the bulk of the previous nine months recovering from a fibrillating heart, he had been beaten in his prep race at Kempton and he climbed into the Gold Cup ring a shadow of the champion that he had become on the same stage a year earlier. By contrast, Kauto Star was zinging, flying like a butterfly. He had won his third King George on the bounce 20 weeks earlier, and trainer Paul Nicholls thought that he had never had him better.

The race was not presented as a match. In truth, it was more like a mis-match. Denman was not the Denman of old. No rosettes this time, no baseball caps, no hype, just like at Madison Square Garden in January 1974. The second bout of the Ali-Frazier triumvirate was the least significant of them all by some way, so much so that it wasn’t even afforded the respect of a clever title, not The Fight of the Century, not The Thrilla in Manilla, just Ali-Frazier II. Ali won easily, about as easily as Kauto Star won the 2009 Gold Cup, Kauto-Denman II. Significantly, however, although he was well beaten, somehow a below-par Denman ground his way to the runner-up spot, proving that, even well short of his best, he was still one of the top two staying steeplechasers in the business.

But if that was admirable Denman, last Saturday at Newbury we saw vintage Denman once again. The Hennessy Gold Cup is a young horse’s race these days. Nine of the previous 10 winners were aged six or seven, nine of the 10 were embarking on just their second season jumping fences. It is almost always won by a young improving horse with whom the handicapper has not yet got to grips. When Denman himself won it in 2007, he was an improving seven-year-old. Although his rating of 161 was high by Hennessy winners’ standards, and meant that he had to shoulder top weight of 11st 12lb, subsequent events proved that he was actually leniently treated, as in his next three starts he won the Lexus Chase, the Aon Chase and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Denman is now nine, almost 10. You could easily have argued from his cv that he had reached the peak of his powers and was on the decline. The handicapper seemed to have him cooked in allotting him a rating of 174, which meant that he effectively had to give 13lb more to his rivals than he did in 2007. But he did. More than that, the performance that he put up in winning the Hennessy, the strength and power, the thou-shalt-not-pass attitude when he was challenged by whipper-snapper What A Friend with 22lb less on his back, was the Denman of old, the pre-fibrillating-heart Denman. In so doing, the ratings say that he put up probably the best performance of his career. The Gold Cup is his primary objective again this season. The old champ is back.

Two weeks ago Kauto Star himself proved that he was still as good as ever when he won the Betfair Chase at Haydock. He only got home by a flared nostril, but the horse that he beat, Imperial Commander, is as real a challenger as there is this season to the Kauto-Denman absolute domination of the heavyweight division. The pretender had everything in his favour at Haydock and he still failed, albeit narrowly, and, somewhat ominously, both Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh said afterwards that Kauto would come on appreciably for the run. All roads lead to Cheltenham again. Suddenly, and against all the odds, Kauto-Denman III is on.

We need to appreciate what we are witnessing here. You have to be careful with superlatives, and the quota for the year was probably surpassed during the Sea The Stars era, but these are extraordinary times, these are extraordinary horses. Kauto Star has now won 12 Grade 1 races. He had the speed to win two Tingle Creek Chases over two miles, the pace to win three King Georges so far and the stamina to win two Gold Cups. He is the only horse in history to regain the Gold Cup after losing it.

Denman, also a Gold Cup winner, joined the exalted club that included only Arkle and Mandarin as the only horses to win two Hennessys, the first since 1965. Neither of these horses ever finished out of the first two when they have completed in the UK and Ireland. Comparisons with Ali and Frazier are not merely poetic – either would be a champion of some renown, probably a horse of a generation. To have both of them around together is to be cherished. No 10-year-old has won the Gold Cup since 1998. That gap could be bridged this season.

Although both horses are trained by Paul Nicholls, although they live next door to each other in Ditcheat, literally, the competition between the owners is intense, make no mistake. You could feel it in the Hennessy aftermath on Saturday. “The bookmakers can’t separate them, but I can,” said Denman’s joint-owner Harry Findlay, always good for a colourful quote. “I think he’ll win the Gold Cup pulling a cart.”

This is a rare opportunity for racing. All the ingredients are there to allow this story spill out over racing’s banks into mainstream, even in a country in which AP McCoy, the most successful rider ever, was once again deemed not worthy of a place on the shortlist for Sports Personality of the Year. The human characters are in place (Nicholls and Walsh, the odd couple Findlay and Barber, the quietly-spoken Smith), the sub-plots are plentiful (what will Ruby ride, and who will ride the one he rejects?), the behind-the-scenes insights are fascinating (are they trained differently?), the opportunities to garner the public’s attention are limitless (can you think of a name for the match-up?) and, of course, essentially, the horses are exceptional, two of the best and best-known of this generation.

The hope is that both horses tread the road to Cheltenham safely – they are fragile beasts after all – because if they do, there is a huge story to be told, and enough landmarks along the way to present the opportunity to tell it.

It should be a thrilla.

© The Sunday Times, 6th December 2009