With the Ladbrokes Trophy taking place at Newbury on Saturday we revisit Timeform's Chasers & Hurdlers 2009-10, where Denman's second Hennessy was sharply in focus.
Two more top-drawer performances from DENMAN in the latest season were demonstrations that, when it mattered most, he was right back at the peak of his form, if not marginally better than ever.
A second win under top weight in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury had all the hallmarks of a career-best effort, and - again, strictly on form - a valiant second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup was arguably a better performance than either of his previous attempts in chasing's most important championship, better even than the one required to defeat a below-par Kauto Star in 2008.
But if the latest campaign provided ample proof that Denman's considerable ability remained intact, his air of invincibility took a knock with his failure to complete in the AON Chase at Newbury and a disappointing end to his season in the Punchestown Gold Cup. Neither of those races was among his chief targets - the AON was no more than a prep race for Cheltenham and Punchestown was something of an afterthought - but, despite having valid excuses for what happened in each of those contests, the performances revealed chinks in the armour of a horse whose apparently 'bombproof' nature had earned him the nickname 'the tank', among others.
Thirteen wins from his first fourteen starts under Rules and an unbeaten run of nine races over fences established Denman's armour-plated reputation, along with his imposing physique, that of a big, strong 'old-fashioned' chaser, and the relentless galloping style that drove so many of his rivals into the ground. However, a troubled 2008/9 season in which he failed to win at all, spoiled his record, leaving him with something to prove at the outset of his latest campaign.
Diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat early in the autumn of 2008, Denman had been unable to attempt a second win in the Hennessy Gold Cup that year. Following treatment and a spell on the easy list, he made a belated return at Kempton the following February (in a substitute race for the snowed-off AON at Newbury) where a sound beating at the hands of Madison du Berlais made his second in the Gold Cup a month later - beaten thirteen lengths by a top-form Kauto Star - all the more creditable. After looking to be well and truly on the way back, a heavy fall at the last ditch in the totesport Bowl at Aintree - looking no certainty to account for Madison du Berlais incidentally - left Denman a little battle-scarred at the end of that third season over fences.
Denman suffered no long-term damage from his Aintree fall and, when resuming work ahead of his bid for a second win in the Hennessy Gold Cup, was reported to be in much better form than the previous autumn, delighting his trainer in a racecourse gallop at Exeter.
As when successful two years earlier, Denman carried top weight of 11-12 at Newbury, though this time he was competing from a BHA mark of 174, compared to 161 in 2007 when giving 19lb and an eleven-length beating to the latest season's Welsh National winner Dream Alliance. As a result of his campaign in 2008/9, Denman's BHA mark had come down from the 182 (3lb higher than Kauto Star at the time) he had been allocated in the Anglo-Irish Classifications of 2007/8, though he still had to give a minimum of 12lb to his eighteen rivals, six of whom were out of the handicap.
Despite his troubles in the interim, and the fact that the Nicholls stable fielded another strong candidate, What A Friend (carrying 10-4), Denman was sent off favourite at 11/4.
Denman had surrendered the position of market leader to Snowy Morning, also in the latest Hennessy field, in the 2007 renewal. Apart from What A Friend, another second season chaser Killyglen and the Gold Cup seventh Barbers Shop were Denman's closest rivals according to the betting, while the remainder of the field included another former Hennessy winner, State of Play, the Grand National winner Mon Mome, and the 2006 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner War of Attrition, no longer the force of old and contesting his first handicap, on 10-6.
Whilst lacking the dominance of his 2007 victory, when he had the race won from a long way out in much more testing conditions, Denman's second success in the Hennessy again owed plenty to his assured jumping and resolute galloping.
His resolution served him well at the finish but, back at the start, he had needed plenty of rousting by Ruby Walsh to get away on terms on the outside of the field and take up a prominent pitch jumping the first. Denman is, by all accounts, prone to laziness at home and, though he has never failed to jump off in a race, no chances are taken on racedays when he is accompanied at the start by the trainer's assistant.
Once under way in the latest Hennessy, Denman soon settled on the heels of the leaders Joe Lively and Niche Market, briefly taking the lead over the water passing the stands for the first time. Going down the back straight on the second circuit, Denman asserted and went on again, for good this time.
A bold jump at the cross fence by Denman put daylight between himself and Barbers Shop, who had emerged as his closest pursuer, and while the latter closed again seemingly going well on Denman's inner four out (the first in the straight), another fine leap from Denman saw him off.
Niche Market was still in contention at that stage too, but it was stable-companion What A Friend who was to prove the only real threat. Denman briefly looked to have a fight on his hands going to the last when What A Friend drew upsides under Sam Thomas (who had partnered Denman to victory in 2007), but, with his stable-companion hanging fire, Denman showed much the greater resolution when driven out on the run-in to win by three and a half lengths. There was a similar gap back to Irish National winner Niche Market who, racing from 3lb out of the weights, pipped Barbers Shop for third, with the others finishing at long intervals behind those in the frame.
Six of the last seven Hennessy Gold Cups have now been won by horses carrying 11-0 or more; Trabolgan also carried 11-12 in 2005 though, with him, that corresponded to a BHA mark of only 151. Denman's two victories are the best performances in the race since Burrough Hill Lad's win under 12-0 in 1984, that horse the last Hennessy winner before Denman to have won a Cheltenham Gold Cup as well.
Bregawn went on to win at Cheltenham in the spring, but all the other horses to have won both races achieved the feat early in the Hennessy's history.
Between them, the Cheltenham Gold Cup winners Mandarin, Kerstin, Mill House and Arkle won six of the first nine runnings of the Hennessy Gold Cup after the race was inaugurated in 1957. Mill House, who won under 12-0 in 1963 (with Arkle third under 11-9), and Arkle, who defied 12-7 in the next two runnings (Mill House fourth under 12-4 in 1964) are the only other horses, apart from Burrough Hill Lad, to have carried more weight to victory in a Hennessy than Denman. He is in very good company then, joining an exclusive club along with Mandarin and Arkle as the only dual winners of the Hennessy.
The exploits of Arkle crop up regularly in these pages. He ran in four consecutive Hennessy Gold Cups, slipping on landing at the last ditch in Mill House's year and then narrowly failing to give 35lb to the subsequent Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up Stalbridge Colonist when attempting his hat-trick in 1966 (1969 Gold Cup winner What A Myth, receiving 33lb, was in third).
The other dual Hennessy winner Mandarin, whose era just preceded that of his stable-companion Mill House and Arkle, compiled a tremendous record in his own right in the top staying handicaps and weight-for-age contests over fences, establishing a prize money record over jumps which stood until it was broken by Arkle.
Mandarin is probably best remembered for his win in the 1962 Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris, a heroic performance from both the horse and his rider. Not only did Mandarin's bit snap early in the race, leaving Fred Winter with no steering for the best part of three and a half miles around the twisting course, but Mandarin also broke down before the final straight.
Winter was as exhausted as his mount, largely as a result of having to waste to do 9-10 for a race later on the Auteuil card, riding at more than half a stone lower than his usual minimum. Mandarin was eleven years old at the time of his win in the Grand Steeple-Chase (he had also been runner-up in the same race three years earlier), becoming trainer Fulke Walwyn's hack after he was retired. His win at Auteuil also set the seal on the most successful season of his entire career: he went unbeaten in five races in 1961/2, winning his second Hennessy Gold Cup and landing the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the last-named at the third attempt.
Like Denman, Mandarin won his first Hennessy as a second-season chaser, having won the Broadway Novices' Chase (which had become the Royal & SunAlliance when Denman won it) at Cheltenham by twenty-five lengths the previous March.
The first three Hennessy Gold Cups were also run at Cheltenham, before the race moved permanently to Newbury in 1960. Mandarin's victory in the inaugural renewal (under 11-0, in receipt of 16lb from the runner-up Linwell, winner of that year's Cheltenham Gold Cup) was a fitting one given that he was owned by Madame Peggy Hennessy from the family of the sponsoring firm.
With a stone more on his back, Mandarin started odds on to win the Hennessy again the following year but managed only a remote fifth and missed the race in the next two years before returning in 1961 to win at Newbury under 11-5. Mandarin's first appearance in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1958 was inauspicious, unseating at the eighth from home and, in the process, effectively bringing down old rival Linwell, the pair had been sent off first and second favourites.
Mandarin fared better in his second attempt three years later, finishing third to Saffron Tartan and the previous year's winner Pas Seul, before perseverance paid off in 1962 with a length victory from Fortria.
Also on Mandarin's list of big-race wins was the King George VI Chase at Kempton which he won a month after his first Hennessy and again two years later. The King George wasn't Mandarin's luckiest race, however, as he sustained a fracture to a hind leg when third in the 1958 renewal which kept him out of that season's Gold Cup, and then developed tendon trouble after winning a gruelling contest in 1959, the resultant problems keeping him off the course for the best part of a year.
One big race that did elude Mandarin, though not for the want of trying, was the Whitbread Gold Cup at Sandown. He contested the race four times, finishing runner-up in his first three attempts, beginning with the inaugural contest when still a novice in 1957 (the Whitbread predated the Hennessy by only a matter of months as the first big sponsored handicap chase). Beaten a neck by Much Obliged on that occasion, Mandarin went closer still two years later, going down by a short head to Done Up, conceding 12lb to the winner.
Arguably Mandarin's best effort in the Whitbread, though, came in 1958 when starting the 9/2 favourite, despite carrying top weight of 12-0 against no fewer than thirty rivals, as a result of having won both his starts in handicaps under big weights since his mishap in the Gold Cup.
On this occasion, it was stable-companion Taxidermist (who beat him again in the Hennessy later in the year) who proved too good, but Mandarin had the Gold Cup winner Kerstin back in third (giving her 4lb) and Much Obliged in fourth.
Mandarin did get some reward for his near-misses at Sandown. After his third defeat, Whitbread's chairman Colonel Bill Whitbread arranged for Mandarin to receive two bottles of the company's Mackeson stout every day for the rest of his life from a pub in Lambourn; Mandarin had long been fussy when it came to food and apparently needed a sweetener in his meals to get him to eat up. Arkle, on the other hand, famously enjoyed Guinness as his tipple, while, so far as we are aware, Denman is strictly teetotal.
While the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup had long been billed as "the decider' between Denman and Kauto Star, each having one win apiece in the race, Kauto Star was a best-priced 7/4 and Denman 6/1 before Newbury. With the Hennessy showing Denman right back in top form, the Cheltenham Gold Cup took on a considerably more balanced look, to the extent that some bookmakers were unable to split the pair.
The equilibrium was short-lived, however, with Kauto Star putting up an even better performance than Denman's when winning the King George at Kempton by a distance, regaining outright favouritism which he kept right through to the Gold Cup.
Even so, a big compliment was paid to Denman a few days after the King George when What A Friend landed the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown. Denman had gone on to win the Lexus himself after his first Hennessy, but was scheduled in the latest season to have just one run between the Hennessy and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
His trainer was reportedly keen for that outing to be in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham at the end of January. With Denman's owners reportedly preferring the AON Chase (a race Denman had won before the 2008 Gold Cup), and Denman said to have had a slight setback just before the Cotswold, it was back to Newbury where Denman was unbeaten in five starts over fences.
On the face of it, Denman's task looked most straightforward. Stable companion Tricky Trickster, having his first run of the season over fences and being brought along with the Grand National in mind, was the only one of his five rivals at single-figure odds, while Niche Market was nearly two stone worse off with Denman from their meeting in the Hennessy.
Most interest in the AON was focussed on Denman's new partnership with Tony McCoy. With Ruby Walsh due to maintain his long-standing association with Kauto Star in the Gold Cup again, lengthy speculation was ended when McCoy was confirmed as Denman's intended jockey at Cheltenham, with the Newbury race the first opportunity for the pairing to become acquainted.
McCoy had at one stage been quoted at odds-on to get the ride on Denman in the 2009 Gold Cup, though, on that occasion, the rider successful on Denman in the 2008 Gold Cup, Sam Thomas, had kept the mount. Thomas had also retained the ride (ahead of Walsh) at Aintree but, soon after that, it was announced that he would no longer be employed as second jockey by Nicholls - What A Friend's Leopardstown victory was his only winner (from just eight rides) for the stable in 2009/10 and, to compound matters, he had the misfortune to suffer neck and back injuries in a fall when schooling at Manor Farm Stables the week before the Cheltenham Festival, which, along with Aintree, he was forced to miss.
Harry Skelton and Christian Williams (the only other rider to have won on Denman) now share the understudy duties at Ditcheat, but often lose out to bigger names when it comes to the top races. Therefore, it came as no surprise that McCoy got the call-up in the latest Gold Cup, though, in betting on who might take the ride, Barry Geraghty had apparently attracted support as another possibility from outside the Nicholls yard. In the event, Thomas would have been unavailable for the Gold Cup, his accident coinciding with a day when McCoy was also at the stable schooling Denman.
Denman was sent off at 6/1-on in the AON but served as one of three reminders in as many weeks that there is no such thing as a certainty in racing. Stable-companion Tataniano had been beaten at 11/2-on in a three-runner novice chase at the same track a fortnight earlier and, five days after the AON, the then-Champion Hurdle favourite Zaynar was beaten at 14/1-on.
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Although going with his usual exuberance and jumping well for a long way, Denman had still not shaken off his pursuers, Niche Market in particular, turning into the final straight. McCoy checked under his arm to see what sort of an advantage he had on four separate occasions between the last fence in the back straight and the first in the home straight and must have been concerned to see Niche Market still in touch each time. Denman made his first serious mistake at the fourth last, landing awkwardly, unbalancing McCoy and handing the advantage to Niche Market (who will reportedly be a stable companion to Denman in 2010/11). Much worse followed at the next where Denman took off too soon, ploughed through the fence and gave his rider no chance of staying in the saddle.
Even before the race, there were some who questioned whether McCoy was the best choice for Denman and the AON result was viewed unfairly in some quarters as providing further ammunition in the argument about whether the champion's style of riding suited the horse.
Owner Paul Barber, on the other hand, raised the question of whether Denman might benefit from first-time blinkers in the Gold Cup, as his 1999 winner See More Business had done. Paul Nicholls subsequently ruled out using headgear and was better placed than anyone to draw the most pertinent conclusion from Denman's performance, stressing that fitness - or lack of it- had been the main factor.
'I'd deliberately left plenty to work on. Because of that, I believe he was just mentally lazy,' explained Nicholls, adding 'mentally and physically he's still a month away from how he was for the Hennessy.' Denman's jumping had not been entirely without blemish when he won the AON Chase by twenty lengths in 2008 (his trainer reckoned him 'only 80% fit' that day) and the AON's replacement in 2009, the Levy Board Chase, was another occasion when a far from fully tuned-up Denman jumped with less than his usual fluency. There seems plenty of evidence, then, to suggest that Denman needs to be at peak fitness for his jumping to be spot-on as well.
Paul Nicholls is a master at having his horses in top form for the races that really matter. But for a horse to be brought to one or two peaks in his campaign - be it the Hennessy for Denman, the King George for Kauto Star, or the Gold Cup for both horses - it follows that there must be troughs as well in between when the horse is short of one hundred percent race fitness.
While punters might expect outstanding chasers like Denman and Kauto Star to be near-certainties for apparently 'easy' prep races like the AON, the top horses probably face stiffer tasks than might generally be appreciated, given their state of readiness on such occasions.
Indeed, the AON Chase has thrown up plenty of surprise winners during its relatively short history, with odds-on shot First Gold succumbing to the Nicholls-trained novice Shotgun Willy in 2001, whilst Shooting Light (33/1) and Farmer Jack (12/1) also lowered the colours of more vaunted rivals in 2004 and 2005 respectively. Kauto Star himself made heavy weather of winning the 2007 AON Chase by a neck from L'Ami before winning the Gold Cup, and it was clear that the Kauto Star that scraped home by a nose in the latest Betfair Chase was a different horse to the one that won the King George by a distance five weeks later.
All that said, on any purely objective assessment of Denman's AON performance, it was difficult not to feel a sense of disappointment that he could apparently not shake off Niche Market. Even if he hadn't made a mistake and then unseated his rider, Denman would have won only narrowly (if indeed he had won at all) and he was a very long way below his best on the day.
Although failing to take the eye in appearance - not unusually for Denman - before the Gold Cup, his trainer reported him to have 'tightened up enormously since Newbury.' Incidentally, with two failures to complete from his three most recent starts, Denman had to undergo the formality of a veterinary examination before the Gold Cup, a welfare measure brought in by the BHA following a number of fatalities at the 2006 Festival.
There was some irony in Denman falling into this 'high-risk' category in the latest season when his health and wellbeing had been much more of an issue prior to the previous season's Gold Cup. There were no lapses in Denman's jumping at Cheltenham, when McCoy was seen to particularly good effect.
Denman went with plenty of zest up with the pace, putting in a particularly good leap when pressing on at the fourth last, the same fence at which Kauto Star crashed out of the race. Imperial Commander was clearly going the better, however, and, while Denman put up a good fight until the final fence, he was left behind on the run to the line, beaten seven lengths in the end but still finishing twenty-three lengths clear of the third, Mon Mome.
Paul Nicholls' initial thoughts were to end the season there for Denman, though, on more reflection, he reasoned that 'it's an awful long time off the track for Denman if we wait for the Hennessy in November.' For a while, there was the prospect of seeing Denman back in handicap company, in the Scottish National. Back up to a BHA mark of 182, his presence at the top of the weights put all bar three rivals out of the handicap, even at the original entry stage, though, in the end, the ground was not considered soft enough at Ayr, and an alternative engagement was taken up in the Punchestown Gold Cup.
Looking better at Punchestown than he had at Cheltenham, Denman had still to prove himself to everyone's satisfaction on a right-handed track, though the evidence beforehand that he couldn't act that way round was rather flimsy. He had won his first two starts over hurdles at Wincanton and had made a winning debut over fences at another right-handed track, Exeter. His only start since then on a right-handed course had been that defeat at Kempton in the Levy Board Chase on his first outing after his heart problem.
Sent off the 11/8 favourite at Punchestown, under Tony McCoy again, Denman looked uncomfortable right from the off. Untidy at the first, he never really had a cut at his fences, continually jumping out to his left. Worse still, he began to hang wide on the bends, McCoy having to give him reminders after the tenth to get him back on course.
Looking almost unrideable at one point as he continued to go left, Denman was kept in the race only thanks to McCoy's persistence and, while he finally began to jump straighter once in line for home and was still in contention at the last, his effort petered out on the run-in. Denman was beaten just over six lengths into fourth behind Planet of Sound and finished three quarters of a length behind third-placed Cooldine who had been twenty-four lengths adrift of Denman when only fifth at Cheltenham.
It did look as if Denman had failed to act right-handed, confirming his trainer's worries beforehand, though he ran so far below form that it could simply have pointed to the contrary.
His trainer now has the task of finding a suitable race for his reappearance in the next season, a bid for a remarkable third win in the Hennessy apparently looking less likely than it did at one time, and the Betfair Chase now favourite to be the starting point for Denman's next campaign.
Looking a bit further head, it seemed at one time that 2011 would be the year that Denman is finally given the chance of tackling the Grand National. Former joint-owner Harry Findlay, who handed his share in the gelding over to Barber when severing ties with the Nicholls yard in the summer, was certainly always convinced that Denman has the right attributes for the race and reiterated that view in the latest season, saying 'He's a National horse in every single way, and if he's not, I'm blind.'
Denman has already been entered for the Grand National once, in 2009, though he was scratched before the weights were framed. Even this far in advance of the 2011 race, it seems a near-certainty that Denman will top the weights if he is entered again, though the feeling now is that Denman will bypass the National.
His presence would reduce greatly the number of others able to race off their correct mark, even taking into account the current policy of allotting those right at the top of the weights relatively lenient marks. With the top weight set to carry only 11-10, there is only a 24lb weight range in the Grand National nowadays, so if, for the sake of argument, Denman were to run from his current BHA mark of 182, it would put any horse on a mark lower than 158 out of the handicap. Coincidentally, the latter is exactly the mark from which Cloudy Lane and Madison du Berlais have carried top weight in the last two Nationals.
Denman's pedigree has been discussed in detail in previous Annuals. His untrustworthy year-younger brother Silverburn left Paul Nicholls prior to the latest season, never having fulfilled the early promise of wins in such races as the Tolworth Hurdle and the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase; now with Evan Williams, he showed useful form at best campaigned over hurdles.
Their dam's latest foal to reach the track, Denwoman (by Witness Box), who was led out unsold at £250,000 at the Cheltenham April Sales in 2008 as a four-year-old, was pulled up amiss in a maiden hurdle at Cork on her debut in May for trainer John Kiely in the colours of Denman's breeder Colman O'Flynn.
Polly Puttens also has an unraced five-year old mare, Pretty Puttens (by Snurge), and an unnamed three-year-old filly who is a full sister to Denman. Her eight-year-old full sister to Denman, named Miss Denman, was sent straight to the paddocks without seeing a racecourse and has already produced three foals - a 2007 gelding by Overbury and fillies by Shantou and Bach in 2008 and 2009 respectively.
Denman's second place in the latest Gold Cup came just days before the death of the renowned figure in Irish bloodstock and racing, Liam Cashman, who was as instrumental as any in Denman's breeding. It was Cashman who sold Polly Puttens to Denman's breeders, while Denman's sire Presenting (the leading sire of jumpers, in Britain and Ireland combined, for the third time in 2009/10) stands at Glenview, the National Hunt wing of Rathbarry Stud which Cashman built into one of Ireland's leading studs.
Strong Gale was another champion National Hunt sire to have stood at Rathbarry, while notable Flat stallions to have been housed there include Barathea and Tagula, the latter sire of the top-class three-year-old miler Canford Cliffs who was raised at the stud.
Incidentally, should there be any doubt, the mid-March headline 'Denman switched to Godolphin' was not an early April fool, nor was it an indication that Sheikh Mohammed has now set his sights on winning the Grand National; this was Denman's four-year-old Australian-bred namesake, a Group 1 seven-furlong winner who was transferred from Darley Australia to race in Britain, but was retired to stud in the summer without racing on British soil.