By Matthew Taylor, attheraces.com
He was a Great, but he could have been The Greatest.
Twenty years ago, on 17 April 2000, the mare Polly Puttens gave birth to a Presenting colt whose rugged and brutal will to win would draw an army of fans.
To that legion – which includes me - Denman was a swashbuckling hero. In his massive liver-chestnut frame he combined breathtaking jumping acumen with a never-say-die tenacity that smashed through the pain barrier.
Denman and his stablemate at Paul Nicholls’s Somerset yard, Kauto Star, breathed life into the jump racing world not seen for generations through a rivalry that saw them meet four times, each one in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and from which Denman emerged a clear 3-1 victor.
Most memorable, of course, is that first clash in 2008.
That afternoon, on a nine-race card staged the day after high winds forced the abandonment of the Cheltenham Festival’s third day, Denman produced a display of jumping that I have never seen bettered in over 35 years of following the sport.
Once Denman took the lead at half-way, the dream of an epic duel with Kauto Star evaporated with every fence. It was on the second circuit that rider Sam Thomas played both his trump cards; Denman’s high cruising speed and his brilliant jumping gradually turned the screw on the rest of the field.
One by one the opposition dropped away until, at the fifth last fence at the top of the hill, Kauto Star made an error – commentator Richard Hoiles noting: “Denman’s got him at it”.
I remember watching that race from the stands at Cheltenham when Denman lit up that cold and damp afternoon; thinking to myself that his effort couldn’t be sustainable, no horse could get Kauto Star off the bridle like that and be expected to last home.
But Denman was an exceptional horse capable of breaking rules that apply only to mortals. Kauto Star started an odds-on favourite that day, but in that last circuit Denman converted the crowd. Such was the magnitude of the performance you couldn’t help but will him on whether you’d backed him or not.
Hoiles – who provided a commentary equal to the occasion – ended the race with: “Denman… relentless, remorseless, has pounded Kauto Star into submission. The answer, is Denman.”
Denman couldn’t match Kauto Star in many respects; over a shorter trip or on a right-handed track, the latter would have no doubt been far superior. But over three and a quarter miles, at Cheltenham, and in the Gold Cup, Denman was the best.
Sadly, we never really got to see how good Denman might have been. The 2008 Gold Cup was Denman’s ninth race over fences, just his fourth outside of novice company, and as an eight-year-old it is reasonable to assume he was still on an upward curve.
Then, everything changed. Over the summer that followed, Denman was found to have an irregular heartbeat that required his heart to be restarted and, in truth, he was never quite the same again.
Form figures prior to the setback of 1/11112/11111/1111 transformed into a line that read /22F/1U24/325.
My mentor in horseracing, my uncle Jim, used to tell me ‘they never come back’. By that he meant that horses who sustain serious injuries, particularly great ones, usually don’t return as good as they once were. Sadly, that would be the case for Denman.
Of course, the solitary “1” in that second half of his career does represent a second win in the Hennessy Gold Cup in 2009. This time with Ruby Walsh in the saddle with Sam Thomas aboard another Nicholls-trained star, runner-up What A Friend, Denman gave us a momentary glimpse of his old ability.
Carrying top-weight again but more importantly defying a mark of 174 – the highest official rating any staying chaser has carried to victory since 2000 – Denman again won by virtue of his two remarkable assets - jumping and a high cruising speed. Plus, of course, that will-to-win that is so visible in the final stages of that Newbury race, where Denman puts his head down in unforgiving determination.
Aside from that moment of brilliance, the Denman of later years was simply not as good as he once was. When he returned from his absence at Kempton in February 2009, he looked a shadow of his former self and his brave but distant second to an outstanding Kauto Star in the Gold Cup that followed came when he was ridden with noticeably less aggression than 12 months before; understandable given his participation had been in doubt just over a week before the big race.
That 2009 Gold Cup would be the sole occasion Kauto Star would have the upper hand on Denman. In 2010 AP McCoy made the most of his jumping ability in arduous conditions (which saw Kauto Star fall when beaten four out) before finding only Imperial Commander too good.
Twelve months later Denman and Kauto Star locked horns again in a memorable renewal ultimately won by the six-year-old Long Run; the reception received by second and third-placed on their return to unsaddling matching that awarded to the winner.
I watched those last two Gold Cups alongside my friend Barry Faulkner in front of the stands at Cheltenham and have great memories of the electric atmosphere of the race and the sheer love the crowd had for the two old rivals.
But those recollections are also laced with melancholy. That trio of Gold Cup seconds is what makes me wonder what Denman would have achieved but for his setback.
Champion Chase winner Sprinter Sacre had a similar problem, his career stalled by an irregular heartbeat when still capable of more improvement. Of course, he did return to further Cheltenham victory, but the official handicapper and Timeform both have him performing to 13lb below his peak in that last, unbeaten season that included his defeat of Un De Sceaux in the Champion Chase.
Add another 13lb to Denman’s achievements and you’ve got a four-time Gold Cup winner.
That last Gold Cup in 2011 ended a fine Cheltenham Festival record for Denman that reads six runs, two wins and four seconds. His final race came at the Grand National meeting at Aintree, where he never seemed happy and he finished a distant fifth to Nacarat, a smashing horse, but one that would have been just a trailing rock behind the comet that was Denman at his peak.
This misty-eyed trip down memory lane isn’t intended to take anything away from the wonderful Kauto Star. His incredible consistency and versatility without doubt make him the highest achieving jumps horse since at least Desert Orchid, if not Arkle himself. The fact that he maintained his form over so many seasons, culminating with those two great reversals over Long Run in the 2011 Betfair Chase and King George, means he is rightly remembered as a great champion.
Very sadly, neither horse got the long retirement they deserved; Kauto Star’s death in 2015 followed just two years later by that of Denman. But how alive they were at their best.
There are moments in life when I wish I could pause time, or at least experience it in slow-motion, to truly appreciate the occasion. Those 17 seconds, from the fourth last to the third last in the 2008 Gold Cup, are top of my list.
That was the moment when the unstoppable force of Denman turned a class field of steeplechasers - not just Kauto Star but also Neptune Collonges and Exotic Dancer, horses good enough to win many a Gold Cup - into also rans in a one-horse display of raw steeplechasing perfection that I hope, one day, to see equalled.
To lots of people, Denman will always be “The Tank”, but for me he was a Rolls-Royce of racehorses. He didn’t need to crush his opposition because, when he was at his best out in front and taking a length out of the field at every fence, they simply couldn’t get near him in the first place.
SAM THOMAS: JACK-IN-THE BOX STAR FOUND EVERYTHING SO EASY
Sam Thomas partnered Denman to Gold Cup success in 2008 and his Hennessy Gold Cup win in 2007. Here's what he has to say about the great horse.
"What made Denman so special was how easy he found everything. He had such a high cruising speed and the main job for me was usually to get him to relax; he could be a jack-in-a-box as he just wanted to get on with it.
If you could get him settled for the first half of a race you could send him on at half-way and know that it would take a special horse to keep tabs on him.
Winning the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup was a surreal experience. Paul Nicholls knew I wanted to ride Denman the way I did and thankfully he did everything so easily, the priority was just not to go too hard early on. Turning down the hill I wasn’t surprised we were clear because everything had gone so well to plan. Over the last couple of fences he was tired, but he was also idling a little – he’d been out in front for a very long way.
Riding him when we were second to Long Run in 2011 was also a great thrill; I got as much pleasure out of him running so well at that stage of his career as I did when he won.
Denman was an incredible horse to be associated with. A big, brute of a horse but with a strong will to win. He was the most genuine horse you could want to ride and that was really his best asset. For me, he was just a different animal to anything else I rode."