Sunday, March 16, 2008

Kauto Star vs Denman

14th March 2008 - Denman and Sam Thomas' day
I couldn’t really believe that Kauto Star would be beaten in the Gold Cup. During the past two seasons he had proven himself to be the best steeplechaser of at least the last twenty seasons by winning championship races from the minimum two miles to the Gold Cup distance of three-and-a-quarter miles and his previous race at Ascot showed him to be as good as ever.

A lot had been made of his stablemate and neighbour Denman who had won the Sun Alliance Chase the year before and who had won his three races this year, including the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury. Could he be even better than Kauto Star?

Now if you have seen what is the best chaser of the last twenty years, how likely is it that there is another horse, and in the next door stable who would be even better than this one?

Anyway, after the two horses won their races at Cheltenham last year the plans were laid out for the two horses such that they would avoid each other all season until the Gold Cup, where they would go head-to-head in the championship for staying chasers, the Blue Riband of Steeplechasing.

And, so remarkably, it turned out. Kauto Star had won three of his four races, losing the first one when not quite fully trained and conceding weight to the very good horse Monet’s Garden on that horse’s favourite track of Aintree. Denman had won his three races. Both had been kept sound, without any training setbacks and here we were with the races ahead of us. Rarely do things work out so neatly, the months before any Gold Cup being filled with reports of this horse or another having to be pulled out of the race due to injury. This year most of the defections from the race were more to do with the fact that trainers thought that their horses would not stand too much of a chance against Kauto Star and Denman.

Mum told me she was in the Denman camp when I arrived earlier in the week, having seen both horses being filmed at their stables in Ditcheat in Somerset, not too far away from Crewkerne. He looked a much stronger and more impressive horse than Kauto Star. I already knew this but I had already seen Kauto Star win all his races despite not being the best looking horse in the world. I had also bet against Denman when he was favourite for last year’s Sun Alliance Chase and had put my money on the 20-1 outsider Aces Four. Aces Four led throughout the whole race before making a mistake at the difficult fence three out, which gave the race to Denman. I was not so very impressed, but then I had not seen Denman in any of his races this season and had not had the chance to see how much he had improved.

Anyway, we first had the surprise and disappointment of losing Wednesday’s racing due to the storm which was passing through which would have made the racecourse possibly unsafe and in these days of Health and Safety, they could not take the risk that anyone would be injured. It turned out to be a glorious sunny day, albeit a bit windy. The races were transferred to Thursday and Friday and we would have ten races on the Thursday and nine on the Friday.
Thursday came and went with some wonderful performances in the three main races won by Master Minded, Our Vic and Inglis Drever (winning his race for the record third time) and Mum and I set off in the rain on Friday morning in good time to get to the course for the first race. Fortunately, the weather cleared as we went north and although it wasn’t sunny, it was dry and not to cold and no wind…

At the track, people were walking around with rosettes, some with Denman and some with Kauto Star and all the Totesport advertising hoardings were referring to the Showdown between these two great horses.

Today was going to be Sam Thomas’ big day. He had never ridden a winner at Cheltenham but had the ride on Denman, the stable jockey, Ruby Walsh staying loyal to his Kauto Star. I had been following Sam for quite some time and last year he rode my fancy My Will in the race. He had quite a few good rides before the Gold Cup itself and I went about backing him in most of the races, to no avail as none of the horses won. In the race before the Gold Cup he came to won the race on The Tother One but had obviously taken the lead too early as he started moving about from left to right and back again and allowed himself to be caught and beaten before the line. Not a very good way to get your confidence up before the big one. In the meantime, Ruby Walsh ahs won two races, including the Triumph Hurdle on Celestial Halo. Mum had put some money on his Kicks For Free who was last almost all the way round until the very end when he lost by a short head, which was enough to give Mum some place money as he was at 11-1. My money had been on the white Sporazene, who managed to finish 19th of 21…. It wasn’t really my day betting wise…

We found our way to the pre-parade ring to see the Gold Cup horses before they entered the paddock. Unfortunately the light was going and it as drizzling, so not the best conditions for viewing the horses. Still, Denman looked mighty impressive, a big dark chestnut (chocolate) coloured horse, very broad, a wonderful specimen. Knowhere looked strong and healthy and the Irish Afistfullofdollars looked exceptionally beautiful, although not exactly strong. Kauto Star looked like he did last year, a bit lanky. I was interested in Iron Man from Peter Bowen’s yard and while he looked strong he didn’t seem to be in such good nick and you wondered really what he was doing in the race. I remember not liking the looks of Exotic Dancer last year, but I warmed to him more this year and he looked well enough, as did the grey Neptune Collonges.

Then off to the main paddock to take some photos of the horses going around with their jockeys on board, after spending a bit of money on both Iron Man and Afistfullofdollars as possible outsiders. Not much point in putting money on Kauto Star as he was already odds on and I never bet odds on. Denman was drifting out to 9/4 and it seemed that the hype was receding. Mum stayed at the paddock to watch the race whilst I went down in front of the stands to watch the race from there, although I would mostly be watching the race on the big screens than through my binoculars or live. I didn’t even think of getting to the rails to watch from there as it was just too crowded and to dark take photos anyway.

Twenty-five years ago, on the day Michael Dickinson saddled the first five home in the Cheltenham Gold Cup: Bregawn, Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House, I had gone out onto the course and tied a plastic bag around my arm to make it look as if I was a press photographer and was able to photograph the field jumping the last fence, with Cleeve Hill providing the wonderful backdrop. But that was back in the days before security and health and safety were uppermost in everyone’s minds…

Three years ago, Mum and I had been to Cheltenham for the first time together. It was a glorious sunny day, with the temperature reaching above 20 degrees. I was working for Metron and earning a massive salary and the Cheltenham authorities had not yet hiked the prices up yet again…. So then we had tickets for the Club Enclosure, which gave us more space and the opportunity to watch the race from the inside of the track. We were both on the 66-1 outsider Take The Stand and, having already won some money on Moulin Riche, we were thrilled to be able to watch Take The Stand move into the lead as they turned for home and to watch him eventually come second to Kicking King. Wonderful… so close and yet so far…

So here, we were three years later in the damp gloom watching the most anticipated horse race for years and off they went… the grey Neptune Collonges leading Denman with the rest in a pack a few lengths behind. The commentary said they were going an easy pace, but this was not exactly the case. The usual no-hopers were already strung out at the back and Kauto Star was among those leading the pack along with Halcon Genelardais… and so they carried on… everyone hoping there would be no falls and that we would get to see the showdown between the two main protagonists. They passed the stands for the first time and at the top of the hill, rounding the bend, Denman put in a grand leap to take the lead off his grey stable companion and off he went, increasing the lead at every leap. Magnificent, he was. And then we would look behind to Kauto Star and we would see and hear from the commentary that he was in trouble, his jumping going to pieces under the pressure he was being put under.

Denman was out there leading by an ever increasing margin and the Gold Cup had been decided…. Denman had powered Kauto Star into submission… he was winning the Gold Cup. However, just towards the end it looked as if Denman might be tiring and Kauto Star, brave horse that he is, was closing the gap, but it was too little and too late, Denman had flown and he passed the line seven lengths in front to the roars of the crowd in the grandstand… and then just behind there was Neptune Collonges running his best race ever to give Paul Nicholls the trainer and amazing 1-2-3 in the race.

14th March 2008 - Denman and Sam Thomas' day

Time to run back to the winner’s enclosure to take photos of Denman and his jockey Sam Thomas come back to even more cheers And unfortunately I missed both the opportunities to photograph the jockey standing up in his stirrups and then doing a Frankie leap off Denman, my camera’s battery recharging during those valuable seconds… It seemed a lot busier down there than it had been the year before when I had taken some nice pics of Kauto Star and his connections. That was the only sense of ant-climax and I was thrilled that Denman had won a fair race and that both horses managed to run their best races. Under the conditions, the slowest ground since 1995, Denman was the rightful winner. His tactics had worked and he was the better horse on the day. Kauto Star had had his conditions last year, when it was a good deal firmer, and he had duly won his Gold Cup, so all square. I just felt a bit guilty that I had put Mum off betting on Denman, as at 9/4 he was a good price and much better value than the 20-1 they were offering on Knowhere, which had carried her couple of quid. Sorry Mum!

So, superstar racehorse that Kauto Star is, he failed where so many have failed before, namely in winning a second Gold Cup (only Best Mate has done this in the last thirty years – but he didn’t run in hardly any other races during the year). He might have his chance again next year, although that would almost be too much to hope for… another round in the ring with Denman… Anyway, we got our race and although they did not go to the line neck and neck as sometimes often has, both horses had their chances and we were treated to a true match. This does not happen so often…

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