Donn's Articles » Denman jockey

Denman jockey

Just 47 shopping days left to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and still Denman is searching for a partner. We have been here before. In fact, two years on, not that much has changed.

At the end of January 2008, the Paul Nicholls-trained pair Kauto Star and Denman were both on track for the Gold Cup. Kauto Star had just won the King George, Denman had won the Hennessy, and together they formed a formidable pairing that dominated the Gold Cup landscape.

As Nicholls’s first jockey, Ruby Walsh obviously had the choice between the two horses, but Denman’s owners, Paul Barber and Harry Findlay, were anxious to get their rider sorted early. It was understandable, they wanted the jockey who would ride Denman in the Gold Cup to ride him also in his prep race, the Aon Chase at Newbury. Ruby chose Kauto, again understandable (how could you desert a horse on whom you had won a Gold Cup and two King Georges?), Sam Thomas rode Denman to win the Aon Chase, and Sam Thomas rode Denman to win the Gold Cup.

While not much seems to have changed in two years, certain things have. That was an annus mirabilis for Sam Thomas. Ruby was injured at the Cheltenham November meeting, and the young Welshman made hay. He won the Betfair Chase the week after the Cheltenham meeting on Kauto Star, he won the Becher Chase on Mr Pointment the following day, he rode Denman to win the Hennessy the following Saturday, and just to cap things off, he won the Tingle Creek Chase on Twist Magic on the first Saturday in December.

It was an incredible time for the 23-year-old. The under-study was thrust centre stage and put in a life-changing performance. He had come of age, joined the ranks of the top riders, there were even whisperings that he could be as good as Ruby.

It is uncanny the manner in which history tried to repeat itself last season, but failed abjectly. Incredibly, Ruby was injured at the same Cheltenham meeting, Sam Thomas rode the same Kauto Star in the same Betfair Chase, but with a different result: unseated at the last when challenging. The following day at Aintree, Gwanako stopped dead at The Chair in the Grand Sefton Chase, and fired Thomas over his head and over the fence in a high-profile manoeuvre that was captured and replayed continuously by the BBC’s super slow-mo cameras. The following week, Thomas was again unseated off Big Buck’s when challenging at the last in the Hennessy. The net result was that, as Master Minded was running out an emphatic winner of the Tingle Creek Chase on the first Saturday in December, Thomas was riding in exile at Class 3 Chepstow.

Sam Thomas is not second jockey to Ruby Walsh at Paul Nicholls’s these days – he is riding as first jockey for Tom George – which means that he is not an automatic for a Ruby reject. He still rides for Nicholls, but he appears to have slipped down through the trainer’s Rolodex a little. He did ride What A Friend for Nicholls to finish second to Denman in the Hennessy last November, but Barry Geraghty was riding Barbers Shop for his boss Nicky Henderson that day, while AP McCoy was at Newcastle riding Binocular for JP McManus. Thomas again rode What A Friend to win the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown at Christmas, but that was again down to happenstance. Barry Geraghty actually rode the horse down to the start the previous day before the race was consumed by the fog, and he had to ride at Newbury on the day that the race was actually run.

The other subtle difference between Gold Cup build-up 2010 and Gold Cup build-up 2008 is that there doesn’t appear to be any pressure on Ruby Walsh to make an early decision. As in 2008, all going well, Denman will now have his prep run in the Aon Chase at Newbury on 13th February, but it appeared during the week that he would run instead in yesterday’s Argento Chase at Cheltenham, and there was no suggestion that anyone other that Ruby Walsh would be on board. It may well happen, it may get sorted in the next two weeks, but the sense is that everyone is happy to wait for Ruby this time.

So which will Ruby choose? Of course he is right to leave his decision until as late as possible, horses being horses – with all this talk of the great match, the great opportunity for racing to promote itself, you hold your breath in the hope that they both make it to the races in one piece – but it would be mildly shocking if, all things being equal, he deserted Kauto. If you are backing Ruby at 6/1 to ride Denman, you are effectively betting on something untoward happening to Kauto in the next six weeks, and who wants to bet on that?

AP McCoy is favourite to pick up the Denman ride, although the booking doesn’t appear to be as certain now as it was last week. Stan James cut the champ from 2/5 to 1/3, and then suspended betting on the market altogether after a flurry of activity pursuant to a quote from Paul Barber about getting the best available, but you can now back him at 4/7 with Paddy Power. AP says that nobody has asked him yet, but that he would love to be considered.

You can see the angle. McCoy’s talent is way beyond question, nobody else has been champion since he went professional, he rides for Nicholls when he is required and when he can, and he was the person to whom Nicholls turned when he needed a rider for Master Minded in last season’s Tingle Creek. Moreover, crucially, he is available.

Barry Geraghty is also available, and he is another to whom Paul Nicholls has turned in the past. The jockey’s link with Nicholls goes back to the likes of Valley Henry, who also raced in Paul Barber’s colours, and Cenkos in 2002, and his talents have been showcased in the UK this season and last through an ever-burgeoning partnership with Nicky Henderson. He is top class, a man for the big occasion, and he knows what it is like to win a Gold Cup, having won it on Kicking King in 2005. Indeed, he is the only man who knows what it is like to win a Gold Cup, a Champion Hurdle, a Champion Chase, a King George and a Grand National.

It will be tough on Sam Thomas if he doesn’t get to ride Denman. He is a good rider, he and Ruby are the only two people to have ever ridden Denman in a chase, and it is not often that you get jocked off a horse on whom you have won a Gold Cup and a Hennessy. However, if connections are intend on using the best available, Thomas could be in trouble. Good rider though he is, it is difficult to argue that he is better than his competition for this one.

© The Sunday Times, 31st January 2010