What Happened to Denman?
Racing and especially big events like the Cheltenham Festival , can be likened doing a jigsaw without a picture to help you.
At first there is little clarity, you may not even be sure what the picture is but as the various pieces fall into place the picture becomes clearer and clearer, until you eventually have a complete picture.
Saturday, 7th, February, 2009 was the day one of the final pieces of the Gold Cup jigsaw should have slotted into place. Instead we not only had the frustration of finding the final piece was missing, but someone had sneaked in and stolen some of the other pieces as well, when we weren’t looking.
In case you missed it the day saw the long awaited return of “The Tank”, aka Denman.
A convincing winner of the 2008 Gold Cup he returning after a 330 day absence after it was discovered he had an irregular heartbeat.
Reports from the trainer suggested he had been training well, although connections had warned they were not expecting him to win and they would not be backing him.
What happened in the race has already been well documented elsewhere and does not need to be repeated here, suffice to say he came home second, 23 lengths behind David Pipe’s Madison Du Berlais.
So what has gone wrong?
If you want to find conspiracy theorists, racing is an area where they thrive. You only have to visit any of the racing forums to see accusations from the plausible to the frankly absurd.
Was Denman being sent out for a schooling run with no intention of seriously competing?
I have to admit it was a thought that crossed my mind immediately after the race.
However if you were compiling a list of trainers accused of public schooling, Paul Nicholls would appear on few if any lists, even those of the most ardent conspiracy theorists, especially with such a high profile horse as Denman.
I would further rule this theory out by the reaction of both Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh after the race. They both seemed genuinely perplexed by his run. If, perchance, it does emerge this run was for schooling in public then Nicholls, surely, must be up for best actor award with Walsh as best supporting actor.
The argument in support of the “schooling in public” case is it sets Denman up for a decent touch. His price having drifted like the Marie Celeste since the race. However as I write this almost 24 hours after the race the prices have held steady.
So if it wasn’t a public schooling run what else is it?
One viable option is he is not as fit as the signals from connections were indicating. The word from Ditcheat was he was schooling well.
But was he?
I have made some enquiries and it seems his schooling was going far from well. Previously he dominated the gallops the same way he dominated his races. I have since found out that since his return to work this was not happening. He was being left standing by horses who previously had only seen his rear end disappearing in the distance.
So if he is not his old self then why?
One theory is his heart problems have had a more significant impact than was first thought. There are some reports that his treatment at Newmarket turned out to be more difficult than was initially envisaged. Has this taken a toll?
There have been cases of human athletes having similar treatments and they have returned to competitive competition but, in most cases, they have never reached the same levels of fitness as before they had the problems.
Could this be the case with Denman?
I believe it may be a contributory factor.
We need to turn to hindsight to find the real reason for his poor show yesterday.
More specifically, to the afternoon of Friday, 14th March, 2008. The day of Denman’s demolition of a high class Gold Cup field
In the adrenalin fuelled euphoria of the day it was all too easy to overlook just how hard a race Denman had that afternoon. Watching the race again the front running tactics took a great deal out of him. He finished the race a tired, no exhausted, horse.
Did that run, where he reached the pinnacle of his career, literally break his heart as well?
Did that hard race trigger the heart problems?
Denman also seems to be a thinking, intelligent, horse. When he returned to the course at Kempton, did he remember the hard slog, the pain, of his Gold Cup win?
Did he turn round and think, “sod this for a game of soldiers?”
You know what - I think he did.
I honestly believe that his greatest victory will also be his last. The race that turned out to be his finest hour will be the one that also, with supreme irony, finished him off as a high class chaser.
Connections say he will be going straight to the Gold Cup on Friday, 13th, March. I am not one for superstition but I sincerely hope it does not prove to be an unlucky day for Denman.
Conversely if he hacks up the Cheltenham hill that afternoon to another glorious victory, I sincerely hope and trust, for the sake of the credibility of our sport, that the connections feet will not touch the ground between Prestbury Park and Shaftesbury Avenue.