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Cheltenham Festival
Cheltenham, 11-14 March, 2008

Denman's winning connections
Denman's winning connections celebrate his tumultuous Gold Cup win

By Elizabeth Hudson
BBC Sport, Cheltenham

Paul Nicholls had the appearance of a proud father, Paul Barber and Harry Findlay looked overjoyed but Sam Thomas seemed cool as a cucumber for someone who had just ridden his first Cheltenham winner.

Denman's success in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in front of stablemate Kauto Star, the defending champion, and a third Nicholls-trained runner Neptune Collonges, sparked wild celebrations across the course, led by the winning connections.

The horse is owned by Barber, the quiet man of the partnership, and Findlay's mother Mary but it is the effervescent Findlay himself, the professional punter and a man never short of a word or two, who is the public face of the horse.

He had been bullish about the chances of Denman - "The Tank" as he is affectionately known - for a long time, but while talk can be cheap, Friday's win finally justified his confidence.

The storms that caused the postponement of Wednesday's card, and forced the following days' cards to be extended, were forgotten as the final day of the 2008 Festival dawned.

Cheltenham Dunc

Racegoers pouring through the gates on a grey Friday morning nailed their colours to the mast, with Kauto Star and Denman rosettes and flags on offer for the most eagerly anticipated Gold Cup for many years.

An air of expectation surrounded the parade ring as the horses began to make their way around with space at a premium as everyone seemed to want a part of the action.

Paddock regulars tried to analyse every movement from the horses and the expressions on the face of jockeys and trainers.

"Denman looks a bit hot," said one 'expert' beside me. "I wouldn't be happy with that."

But soon the talking stopped and a hush fell over Prestbury Park with the 65,000-strong crowd hoping that the leading two could fight out an exciting battle up the Cheltenham hill.

However, after all of the pre-race hype, the Festival showpiece failed to produce the nail-biting finish that many punters had wanted with Denman looking like the winner from a long way out.

Once Thomas's mount challenged Neptune Collonges early on, he looked the more dangerous as he bowled along comfortably.

The spectators held their breath as Denman and Kauto Star approached each obstacle, exhaling in relief once both had made it over safely.

Denman and Sam Thomas clear the last en route to victory

Ruby Walsh, on the defending champion, was never far away but his jumping was not as fluid as it had been on previous occasions, and some mistakes crept in.

Having kicked on past Neptune Collonges, on the second circuit, Denman and Thomas were in no mood to concede advantage. Thomas looked behind but Kauto Star was still trying to bridge the gap.

Kauto Star fans urged their horse up the final hill as Denman continued to dominate affairs but as the Cheltenham stands reverberated with noise, it was to be Denman's day. The young pretender had triumphed for a famous win.

Barber, a farmer who also owned 1999 Gold Cup winner See More Business, said: "My ambition in life was to milk 1,000 cows and win a Gold Cup. Now I milk 2,000 cows and I wanted two Gold Cups to go with them."

The success was a test of character for Thomas, who had endured a poor ride in the previous race, the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle. He finished a disappointing third when starting as joint favourite on The Tother one.

After that race was over, Nicholls put an arm around the jockey, surely telling him to forget about that ride and concentrate on Denman, and he showed great maturity to respond in sensational style.

Findlay has already said that he wants Denman to run in the Grand National and he is already the even-money favourite to retain his title next year at Cheltenham.

He will not race again this season, though Nicholls indicated Kauto Star might do.

Where Kauto Star might have been eclipsed, there is a new star on the horizon in Denman

Bookies were left celebrating Denman's win after money poured in for Kauto Star before the off, despite the drizzle falling for much of the day which was likely to favour the pretender.

And they also claimed record takings for the day of up to 280m in what one bookie described as a "betting bonanza", both as a result of the head-to-head between Denman and Kauto Star and because of the cancellation of Wednesday's racing due to the weather.

But whereas the margin of victory for Denman was comfortable, it was not like that for all of the races on the final day of the meeting.

Naiad du Misselot won the Coral Cup for Davy Russell by a nose, with Walsh second on Kicks for Free.

Walsh actually had a pretty good day overall, with winning rides on FiveforThree and Celestial Halo in the two most valuable hurdle races of the day to end up as the Festival's leading jockey.

But Thomas was the jockey everyone was talking about at the end of the day.

And as darkness fell on Prestbury Park and plans were already being laid for next year's event, there is a new star on the horizon in Denman.

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