Thursday, 15 December 2011

Top 5 Denman Races

There’s nothing sadder than realising that the immortal are just as fallible as the rest of us, and last week Horse Racing was forced into that uncomfortable realisation.

One of the kings of a golden era of staying chasers, the mighty Denman, was unfortunately pushed in to early retirement by injury and with that news came the horrible reality check that we would never again get to see ‘The Tank’ relentlessly galloping his rivals in to the ground.

Denman’s rapid rise to the upper echelons of jump racing coincided almost completely in sync with my ever increasing interest in the sport of Kings and along with his majestic stable mate and great rival (and friend) Kauto Star, he helped to ensure that I fell completely in love not only with these two beautiful equine creatures but also the sport that I now call a very healthy obsession.

With Denman now competitively off the track for good we’ll not have the opportunity to see him blaze any new trails round the great race courses of the UK & Ireland, but we all still have our memories, and Denman is certainly responsible for his fair share of unforgettable moments over the last half a decade.

His 2007 RSA Chase victory at the Cheltenham Festival heralded not only his arrival as a major force in the 3m chasing division but also an incredible run of Festival appearances that saw him win one Gold Cup and finish 2nd in a further three. Interspersed with those incredible efforts at Prestbury Park were equally as impressive exploits on both sides of the Irish Sea, including several Herculean efforts in a race that will forever be associated with this monster of a race horse – the Hennessy Gold Cup.

Denman’s influence on National Hunt racing and the horse racing world in general has been colossal, so to celebrate what will hopefully be a long and happy retirement for the old war horse I wanted to remember his five greatest races from a career overflowing with them.

5. Cheltenham Gold Cup 2009 - 2nd

It may seem somewhat odd that for a horse who won 14 of his 24 starts some of his greatest efforts have come in defeat, but for me, and I know a lot of others as well, a large part of what made Denman such a giant of the turf was his never say die attitude.

He was as gallant in defeat as he was in victory, if not more so, and the 2009 Gold Cup is the most wonderful example of that incredible characteristic.

A year earlier Denman had firmly cemented himself as the undisputed champion of the division by putting every one of his rivals, including Kauto, to the sword in an unrelenting display scarcely seen in the sport when winning the Gold Cup.

Twelve months on it was a different story though and having missed the Hennessy earlier in the season after being diagnosed with a defibrillating heart condition Denman had flopped spectacularly on his return and seasonal bow being beaten by an almost embarrassing distance by the useful-on-his-day-but-hardly-in-Denman’s-league Madison Du Berlais in the Aon Chase at Newbury.

Denman it seemed was a shadow of his former dominant self and was sent off at almost insulting odds as he bid to retain his crown.

Always prominent but never getting into that unstoppable rhythm he had 365 days earlier Denman looked good if not spectacular as the race reached its business end. Turning for home it was Denman and his old adversary Kauto Star that kicked clear of the remainder of the field and went on.

In the end it was Kauto Star who cemented himself into the Gold Cup record books by becoming the first horse to lose and then regain a Gold Cup but Denman gave every fibre of his being chasing home his stable mate for what must be one of the great comebacks of the game.

This would not be the last time Denman would find only one horse too good in a Gold Cup, going on to incredibly finish second for the next two years as well, grabbing the Ditcheat bragging rights back again in the process.

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2009 - Video

4. Hennessy Gold Cup 2007 – 1st

If Denman’s RSA victory in 2007 fired a warning shot that he was on his way to shake things up in the stayers division then his 2007 Hennessy win was the equivalent to laying an all out assault on the established order.

Never once looking anything less than the winner, Denman lumped top weight round Newbury and truly pulverised the opposition. Looking back it might not have been a vintage renewal (Dream Alliance was second) but winning the Hennessy under top weight is an impressive achievement by any standard and when it’s done with such power you just couldn’t help but feel you were watching a very special race horse indeed.

The race was put to bed a long way from home as Denman cruised round the turn with almost everything behind him off the bridle and struggling to just stay in The Tank’s slipstream. Sam Thomas had a couple of cheeky glances through his legs to see if there were any dangers but there were no challengers this day to even make the run in even slightly competitive.

2007 was by all accounts Denman’s least emotional Hennessy performance when compared to what would come later, but visually it was by far his most impressive.

3. Hennessy Gold Cup 2010 - 3rd

It’s almost unthinkable that a third place performance could possibly be considered greater than a veritable smorgasbord of victories or even at a push second place finishes in the sports blue ribbon race, but last year Denman managed to make coming third a more impressive performance than the one by the poor horse that actually won the race.

You’ve got to feel for Diamond Harry, the horse had just won the biggest race of his career yet in the winner’s enclosure the spot where the third horse would take up position was packed out.

After his awe-inspiring 2009 performance, Denman returned to Newbury in 2010 after yet another Gold Cup second to once again attempt the seemingly impossible and lug a welter burden round the Berkshire course for a third record-breaking time.

This time though his challenge was even more unimaginable than the previous two attempts as his presence in the race alone had effectively destroyed the handicap meaning that all but a few of his rivals weren’t running off their true marks.

Giving weight away in the Hennessy had become Denman’s speciality but giving a full 2 stone away to some talented unexposed up and coming chasers was in most people’s eyes a step too far for The Tank.

For a while it looked like Denman would prove them all wrong though as he vied for the lead but as the race got serious the young legs free of any sort of weight on their back got the better of the champ and Denman finished a well beaten third behind two very good horses in Burton Port and Diamond Harry (both on 10st).

Let’s not forget the horses that still were left trailing in his wake though, all getting lumps of weight from him – even in defeat Denman still destroyed most of his rivals and I have to say the emotional satisfaction I got from seeing him still plug on for a place has rarely been rivalled.

It would have been nice for his last Hennessy attempt to have ended in victory but somehow defeat only served to increase Denman’s popularity amongst his legions of fans.

Hennessy Gold Cup 2010 - Video

2. Cheltenham Gold Cup 2008 - 1st

Some will no doubt argue that this was Denman’s greatest performance and it’s hard to argue with that sentiment, for me though an afternoon at Newbury in November 2009 remains not only my fondest memory of Denman but also of this great sport to date.

That is a matter of personal preference though and no one can deny that on Gold Cup day in 2008 Denman delivered a devastating performance that you rarely see in such a competitive and gruelling race.

Some say he broke Kauto Star’s heart that day but one thing is for sure, he annihilated those that he left toiling away behind him up Cheltenham’s famous hill, including his illustrious stable mate, and I dare say there isn’t a horse in the annuls of history that would have beat him that day.

On this day he was just that good – unrelenting, unstoppable, uncatchable – Denman took up the running on the second circuit and from that point it was almost cruel to watch him gallop the opposition in to submission.

Kauto would get his revenge one year later but it was nowhere near as emphatic as Denman’s toppling of the then reigning king in 2008, in spite of what the distances may show, in fact I don’t think I’ve seen a more out and out rout of the field in a Gold Cup as I saw in the 2008 renewal.

We may have been robbed of ever getting the rematch in which both horses arrived at the bout in their peak form, but this race was the Ali-Frazier showdown some of their other encounters were later billed as and it was Denman that landed one devastating knockout blow to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had the class to match that unparalleled power and uncanny ability to carry weight and demolish handicap fields.

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2008 - Video

1. Hennessy Gold Cup 2009 - 1st

No other horse race continues to electrify and give me goosebumps like this one – Kauto Star’s recent master class at Haydock came damn close, but Denman’s roaring success in 2009’s Hennessy remains my favourite horse race of all time and it will take something pretty special to ever dethrone it from that position.

Denman arrived for his second attempt at slogging round Newbury under 11st12 having looked almost back to somewhere near his best following all manner of health issues following a remarkable second in the Gold Cup earlier that year.

Still the naysayers threw cold water on his chances though and few truly believed he could emulate some of the greats – Mandarin & Arkle and win a second Hennessy.

Not only did he do it though, as Simon Holt said on the Channel 4 Racing commentary it was “another demolition job from Denman”.

Rousted along at the start by Ruby Walsh so as to get a position at the head of affairs, Denman tanked along just off the lead throughout, taking up the race in front of the stands in a manner that almost suggested he knew how to get the crowd roaring him on – it was incredible to hear a horse being cheered like that so far from home but Denman was certainly good for their support.

With every imperious leap on that second circuit he took another length out of his opponents – no slouches in their own right and one by one they fell away unable to mix it with The Tank. The only one to put up any sort of resistance to him was stable mate What A Friend, ironically ridden by Sam Thomas on this occasion with Ruby on board Denman. Once the Sir Alex Ferguson-owned horse got level with him and Denman caught sight of him it only spurred the big horse on even more though, pulling out more and leaving the toiling What A Friend trailing in a soundly beaten and uncomfortable-looking second.

The atmosphere at Newbury that day and around TV screens across the UK was electric, Holt’s commentary for Channel 4 that day is etched in my memory and when he suggested that “you won’t see scenes like this at Newbury for quite some time” he was right. No horse, with the possible exception of Kauto Star, from this generation of jumpers could possibly have even come close to lighting up a track like Denman did back in 2009.

For the purists yes his Gold Cup was the standard by which all his and his peers’ performances must be measured, but for the sentimental amongst us, no one could failed to have been moved by this display of heart, courage and raw power that Denman became synonymous with and will always continue to be remembered for.

Hennessy Gold Cup 2009 - Video


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