Cats or dogs? The Beatles or the Stones? Kauto Star or Denman?
They lived in next-door boxes in the upper yard at Paul Nicholls’ stable in Ditcheat, Somerset – a yard that, during a period of dominance for the 10-time champion trainer, also housed winter greats Big Buck’s and Master Minded.
The two chasing rivals were foaled in 2000, but that was all they had in common.
Kauto Star was purchased from France, where he had already reached a high level of form, while Denman came from the point-to-point field in Ireland.
Kauto Star, a bay, was the rapier, winning his races by a turn of speed saved until the end of his races.
Denman, a liver chestnut, the bludgeon, beating his opponents from the very start until they buckled in submission.
They were neighbours, but rivals, and their equine adaptation of keeping up with the Joneses kept the Cheltenham Gold Cup at Nicholls’ Manor Farm base for three years between 2007 and 2009.
And every follower of the winter code had their favourite.
There’s no doubt Kauto Star, owned by Clive Smith – the golf course entrepreneur ill at ease in the media limelight – had the greater career.
Kauto Star could do it from two to three miles, he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, the King George VI Chase a record five times, and the Betfair Chase on four occasions.
Compared to Kauto Star’s 16 victories at the highest level over fences, Denman could offer just three.
But for all his undoubted brilliance, there was one day when even Kauto Star was humbled by Denman’s might.
The 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup was held on March 14, and punters made reigning champion Kauto Star the 10-11 favourite to defend his title, with Denman, then unbeaten in eight chases – including as a novice at Cheltenham the previous spring, second choice at 9-4.
There was a general consensus among the ‘experts’ as to how the race would pan out: Denman would make the running under Sam Thomas, but would be quarry to his stable-companion’s final and telling coup de grâce under Ruby Walsh.
But, belittling Cheltenham’s obstacles with extravagant power, Denman unceremoniously ejected Kauto Star from the comfort zone that was his home for most of his racing life. ‘And don’t come back.’
Even with a circuit to race the poise and rhythm ever present in Kauto Star was missing. By the time Denman and Thomas thundered up the hill to the winning post, they had humbled the champion, who scrambled home for second from another Nicholls inmate, Neptune Collonges, by seven lengths.
Denman, whose owners – West Country racing stalwart and cheese baron Paul Barber, and ex-con and loudmouth gambler Harry Findlay made the sport’s oddest couple – was never quite the same horse again.
An uneven heartbeat delayed his return at the start of the following winter, and Denman drew a blank from three tries that season, including when second to Kauto Star in the Gold Cup.
His triumph under 11st 12lb in the Hennessy Gold Cup of November 2009 – the historic Newbury chase he had captured two years earlier – proved to be Denman’s last visit to the winner’s enclosure.
Findlay’s pet name for Denman – ‘The Tank’ – stuck with the racing public.
Relentless, unstoppable, crushing. This iron fist didn’t wear a velvet glove.
At his tyrannical best, Denman was the master of all.
And that includes Kauto Star.
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