BBC Sport horseracing

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

Related BBC sites

Page last updated at 21:05 GMT, Thursday, 12 March 2009
Cheltenham, 10-13 March, 2009



CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP
Venue: Cheltenham Date: Friday, 13 March Time: 1520 GMT
Coverage: Full commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live with live text commentary on BBC Sport website, live on Channel Four


Denman (left) and Kauto Star
Denman (left) and Kauto Star live side-by-side at Paul Nicholls' stables

By Russell Barder

Walking into Paul Nicholls' yard in the village of Ditcheat in Somerset you are immediately struck by the success that has emanated from the champion trainer's stables over the past 15 years.

Shiny plaques adorn stable doors, sporting the names of past greats like See More Business, Flagship Uberalles and Azertyuiop.

Before this year's Cheltenham Festival, Nicholls had trained horses that between them have won 44 Grade One races.

But despite the heritage your attention is immediately drawn to one of Nicholls' current charges - Kauto Star.

"There's something about Kauto that's magical," Nicholls said. "He's been a fantastic horse and we're all very fond of him."

And it is easy to see why.

Soundly beaten by stablemate Denman in last year's Cheltenham Gold Cup, the French-bred nine-year-old will make history if he regains the crown he won in 2007. And he has all the arrogance and swagger of someone who knows that they are at the top of their game.

We think Kauto is in as good form as he has ever been and is the one to beat

Paul Nicholls

As the hordes of journalists, who have come to assess Nicholls's chances for the 2009 Cheltenham Festival, focus their cameras and attention on him, he doesn't miss the opportunity to show off.

"He's always been a bit like that," explained Clifford Baker, head lad at the Manor Farm stables. "He loves the attention - it just makes him think he's great."

While Kauto pricks his ears and nods in delight, happy to pose for pictures and play along, a brooding, moody Denman shies away from the media's gaze in the next-door box.

Clearly not at ease with the circus that arrives every year ahead of the Festival that Nicholls describes as his sport's "Olympics", the diffident Denman greets those who want a glimpse of the Gold Cup champion with a view of his backside, rather than a happy nod of the head and shake of his forelock.

"He'll have his backside to the door most of the day thinking 'when are you lot going?' but that's just him," said Baker.

Nicholls says the Paul Barber and Harry Findlay-owned gelding has "never sparkled at home".

Denman (left) and Kauto Star
Denman (left) beat Kauto Star (right) by seven lengths last year

"He's always worked on his own and he's always been lazy at home," Nicholls added. "It is a job to work out where you are with him until he runs."

The contrast between the two horses could not be greater but, despite this, Baker insists they are good friends and are happy to have each other around.

"You never know how horses think, but they like each other a lot," he said.

"When one of them is not here the other one is looking for him and they can sniff through the bars, so they do get on well."

It is this close relationship that makes their rivalry all the more intriguing and has led the stablemates to capture the public's imagination in a way rarely seen - Best Mate excluded - since the great Arkle in the 1960s, or Red Rum a decade later.

Both have dedicated fan groups on the social networking site Facebook with Kauto Star attracting about 3,500 members across five different groups and Denman more than 1,000 with at least six groups in his honour.

Their rivalry dominated the build-up to last year's Gold Cup and again much of the talk centres on who will triumph this time around.

Kauto has been installed as the bookies' favourite to reclaim his crown after a year in which Denman has struggled with a heart problem that saw him rested for 11 months.

606: DEBATE

There was a fear that he may not return after he had his heart stopped and then started again in a bid to correct an irregular heartbeat that dogged him ever since his victory in last year's Gold Cup.

"He was in the winners enclosure and was out on his feet, he was very very tired," revealed Nicholls.

"There was no way I could have run him again last season - it was just an impossibility.

"When we started working on him in the autumn, it was clear he was not as he was. He was like a car running on one cylinder - he was just not going at all. Once we sorted the problem out he was fine again."

Denman looked a shadow of his former self on his return at Kempton in February as he ran in second behind Madison Du Berlais - his first defeat over fences - and Nicholls believes Friday's main event may be too soon for him to mount a serious defence of his title.

"We think Kauto is in as good form as he has ever been and is the one to beat," he said.

He's probably the stand out bet in the race because he's guaranteed to finish in the top three as far as I'm concerned.

Mick Fitzgerald on Neptune Collonges

"Denman has got to improve on what he did at Kempton to beat Kauto. Coming back from his problem, it is going to be quite hard for him.

"To be fair to him he's doing his work well and there's been no issues.

"It's just a case of whether we can get him back to the ability he had before. The only way we will know that is by running him."

For all the talk about the rematch between the Manor Farm neighbours, there is another Nicholls-trained horse that could come to spoil the party.

Last year's Gold Cup was notable for the fact that Denman led home a Nicholls 1-2-3 with Neptune Collonges, ridden by Mick Fitzgerald, almost catching Kauto Star as he finished third.

Described by Fitzgerald as a "quiet assassin", Neptune is a horse who is almost shunned while his more illustrious neighbours hog the limelight.

But do not let his quiet and unassuming demeanour fool you. Nicholls believes he could again provide a serious threat.

"Neptune Collonges could be the biggest threat to Kauto," he said. "He is a year younger than Kauto and Denman so there still could be some improvement in him.

Neptune Collonges
Neptune Collonges won the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February

"He is right in the Gold Cup mix and wasn't beaten far last year, although he didn't have the race run to suit."

And Fitzgerald agrees: "He's a gentleman and a horse with almost an iron will," he told BBC Sport.

"He's very, very solid and will always give you a good run for your money. I think he's probably the stand out bet in the race because he's guaranteed to finish in the top three as far as I'm concerned.

"There are doubts about so many of these horses - Denman and Kauto Star too - so for me Neptune Collonges represents the best value.

"He's not a showman and is somebody who is just a rock solid player, almost like a Paul Scholes type at Manchester United. He's never in the media, but on the big day produces the goods."

As the cameras and media throng finally depart Manor Farm you can almost sense the relief from Denman as he turns to Kauto as if to say, "I'm glad that's over", while Neptune retires quietly to his stable.

Despite their closeness it will be each horse for himself when the tape goes up on Friday.

Nicholls insists there is no favouritism and will just be delighted to order another plaque for the stable door.

"There's no preference. We just want to win the Gold Cup," he said.



Print Sponsor


see also
The magic of Cheltenham
09 Mar 09 |  Horse Racing
Thomas dreaming of golden repeat
08 Mar 09 |  Horse Racing
Cornelius Lysaght column
07 Mar 09 |  Horse Racing
Denman dismissed as Gold Cup hope
07 Mar 09 |  Horse Racing
On the gallops with Kauto Star
06 Mar 09 |  Horse Racing
Neptune can win Gold Cup - Hales
13 Feb 09 |  Horse Racing
Pipe backs Madison for Gold Cup
26 Feb 09 |  Horse Racing
Kauto's the one to beat - Nicholls
18 Feb 09 |  Horse Racing
Denman outpaced in comeback race
07 Feb 09 |  Horse Racing
Kauto secures King George treble
26 Dec 08 |  Horse Racing
Denman storms to Gold Cup victory
14 Mar 08 |  Horse Racing
BBC racing coverage
09 Apr 11 |  Horse Racing
Quiz the racing team
17 Jun 08 |  Horse Racing


related bbc links:

related internet links:
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.