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Cheltenham Icons: A look at Denman's career

A Cheltenham Gold Cup winner and a horse that captured the public's imagination like few others this century, Denman's robust racing style earned him the moniker 'The Tank'. 

Denman spent all of his racing career in the care of Paul Nicholls and was part of a truly golden era for the Ditcheat supremo, alongside talents like Kauto Star, Big Buck's and Master Minded.

Denman won 14 of his 24 starts under Rules, including the 2008 Gold Cup and a pair of Hennessy's at Newbury that beggared belief.

Horse Racing

A star is born

Bred by Colman O'Flynn, Denman won his point-to-point in Ireland in the spring of 2005 after which he came to the attention of owner Paul Barber – then Nicholls' landlord in Ditcheat.

Barber and Harry Findlay jointly bought the chestnut and he was duly sent to the champion trainer. 

He never ran in a bumper and his stamina was evidenced right from the off, winning over 2m6f at Nicholls' local track Wincanton in October of the same year on his racecourse bow.

Three more wins followed, including the Grade 1 Challow Novices' Hurdle in early 2006 as he made his first Cheltenham Festival appearance that spring.

He was heavily touted for what is now the Baring Bingham Novices' Hurdle but Denman and Ruby Walsh were stunned by Nicanor under a typically canny ride from Paul Carberry after the pair had cleared away to fight out the finish.

Uneaten novice chaser tastes Festival glory

The following season Denman swept all before him as a novice chaser, winning five-from-five at a variety of trips from 2m1½f-3m½f.   

He collected a Grade 2 at Newbury in November and warmed up for Cheltenham by scoring at the Berkshire circuit that would become synonymous with his career in February 2007 over three miles. 

In the Cotswolds he added the Royal & Sun Alliance Chase with an utterly dominant display under Walsh to round off a faultless first campaign over the larger obstacles.

The Tank runs over all opposition

The 2007/08 season was to be Denman's best. Nicholls opted to begin with a crack at the famous Hennessy Gold Cup back at Newbury in December.

Off a rating of 161 and lumping more than a stone to most of his rivals, he stormed clear in the hands of Sam Thomas to win the big handicap.

That Christmas he went to Ireland and delighted the crowds in his Lexus Chase win at Leopardstown and he added a Newbury Grade 2 in February of 2008 – the race now known as the Denman Chase.

Front page news as Kauto Star battle looms

The countdown to the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup was unlike anything most racegoers had witnessed before.

Nicholls was the top trainer in Britain and he had the two best chasers in the land. Kauto Star was the reigning champ and Denman was coming for his crown.

Nicholls made no secret of the fact they would take each other on and the public imagination was well and truly captured as the two horses from adjacent boxes in Ditcheat prepared for a battle royal.

The Kauto Star vs. Denman collision was headline news, pushing racing to the front and back pages of every newspaper.

In one of the most stirring performances ever witnessed in the Cotswolds, Denman and Sam Thomas jumped to the lead with a full circuit of Prestbury Park still remaining and proceeded to gallop their rivals into submission.

Kauto Star grimly fought to finish second but, as Richard Hoiles so famously declared in commentary, it was Denman – 'relentless remorseless, that pounded Kauto Star into submission' as he reached the pinnacle of jumps racing.

Second Hennessy lifts bar again

Denman was discovered to have a fibrillating heart later that year and, in truth, struggled to regain his former heights. 

Having won nine in a row up to that point, he won just one of the 10 races that followed, although he was a fine second in three further Gold Cups.

Kauto Star made history in reclaiming the Blue Riband in 2009 and The Tank would also play bridesmaid behind Imperial Commander and Long Run in the years that followed.

That one final win was, though, something quite out of the ordinary. 

In late November 2009, Denman was back at his beloved Newbury for another go at the Hennessy. Officially rated 174, he lumped weight to the field that afternoon under Walsh and delivered a stunning success, as Sam Thomas and another Nicholls inmate, What A Friend, finished second. 

Denman the destroyer, as he was nicknamed in some quarters, had equalled Mandarin and the great Arkle as the only two-time winners of the Newbury contest and it is a feat that has not been managed since. 

Loved by one and all

Visitors to Ditcheat often remarked on the contrast between the two sporting legends who occupied the 'prestige' boxes. 

Kauto Star was people-friendly, but Denman quite often shunned the attention. Despite that, he had a place in the hearts of many and, when he passed away in 2018 after seven happy years in retirement, Nicholls recalled him as one with a tremendous following.

"Denman was known affectionately to punters and race goers as 'The Tank',” he said, "which I always felt was a fitting description. 

"He was a magic horse who had a tremendous following because of the wholehearted way he went about his racing. He was tough, hardy and willing, wasn't the easiest to train and would bite your hand off in his box given half a chance." 

Any odds displayed were correct at the time of writing and are subject to fluctuation.

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