Ahead of the 2022 Cheltenham Festival, we spoke to Sam Thomas about Denman, the horse that famously propelled him to glory in the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Paul Nicholls had the two heavyweights of National Hunt racing in Kauto Star and Denman, who were destined to meet at some point, despite being kept apart as much as possible.
“A month before the race there was so much build-up, there was all the press releases we had to do and photoshoots for different papers, so it was hard not to get caught up in the whole whirlwind that was going to be the Gold Cup and everyone was talking about it so it meant a lot really.
“It shows in the highlights how good these top jockeys are to go and ride these big horses on the big stage that are favourites because there a hell of a lot of pressure to go with it.
“You try and deal with it the best you can and go into your own little world and focus on the task at hand but it is difficult when you’re on a favourite to win the biggest race of the season.
“I was lucky when I was at Paul’s, we had lots of exciting horses and horses for all the top races but Denman obviously took me to the top in terms of getting there for the big races. He’s a very special horse and it’s only now I realise, now I’m training, how hard they are to come by.
“We went to school some horses and Paul at the time had his schooling fences in the big field and we went round the outside of the fence to warm up. I remember Denman took off with me and just carted round there two or three times and that’s the first time I really experienced the power and the sheer size that he has.
So to the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup. After months and months of anticipation, the question would finally be answered: Kauto Star or Denman?
“Did I think we were going to win the Gold Cup? I suppose in my heart of hearts I did,” said Thomas. “But obviously they’d never run against each other before so it was hard to say exactly who was going to win but we had all the qualities of the horse which was going to take a lot of beating.
“We put Kauto Star’s jumping to the test that day and that’s why he was so good because when our lad was on song he was able to put horses under pressure they’d never experienced before
“That’s the biggest buzz I’ve ever experienced in my entire life, we crossed the line, then it dawned on me what we’d achieved. Ruby was one of the first to say congratulations and I don’t remember anything, I know I tried to kiss him but I don’t know what I was doing. There’s quite a lot of times when you’re saying well done to him, so it was quite nice him saying it back to me.
“Walking back down the chute with everyone cheering your name, cheering the horse’s name, it was the best buzz I’ve experienced by far and I’d pay money to experience that again.
“I guess it’s like being in a football stadium after you’ve won the FA Cup, it was a special, special moment.
“Denman has a real big place in my heart and he’s a horse which I’ll never forget for obvious reasons. Every jockey needs a horse like him in their careers to take them to the next level.”