Stablemates Kauto Star and Denman will go head-to-head on Friday
By Frank Keogh
A tale of two rival champion racehorses is capturing the public's imagination - but the mood is contrasting on the two sides preparing for the Cheltenham Gold Cup showdown on Friday.
Kauto Star v Denman III sees the equine heavyweights locked at one-all in their racecourse clashes with their eagerly awaited rematch billed as the decider.
While Paul Nicholls has the pleasure and responsibility of training the 10-year-olds, the horses' owners are in separate camps and have different perspectives.
For Team Kauto, there is a deep but dignified confidence in their French-bred record-breaker.
As the first horse, in March 2009, to recapture the Gold Cup, and after a historic fourth straight King George VI Chase win at Kempton on Boxing Day, the odds-on favourite has it all to lose.
Meanwhile, the mood in Team Denman has been cautious for the last few weeks since the muscle-bound marauder, nicknamed "The Tank", unshipped Tony McCoy at Newbury in the 14-time champion jockey's first ride on the 2008 Cheltenham champion.
The inside track on Kauto Star and Denman
Three months earlier, optimism burned fiercer after Irish-bred Denman's majestic romp where he gave more than a stone in weight, and a handsome beating, to his Hennessy Gold Cup rivals at the Berkshire course.
Clive Smith, the mild-mannered golf course entrepreneur who owns Kauto Star, bears the nerves of a man who remembers his other horses who were ruled out of the Cheltenham Festival through late injuries.
"I'm just hoping he's there at the start in peak condition and ready for a very big race," he told BBC Sport.
"Everything is looking good. I'm told he's blossoming and in tremendous shape. The vibes I get are he's as good as he's ever been."
Denman's co-owner Harry Findlay has similar vibes, and it is a fear of Kauto rather than a purely negative reflection on his own horse, that causes him concern.
"I'm looking forward to it," said the fast-talking Findlay, who is famed as a big-time gambler who trades in short-priced favourites.
Owners Clive Smith and Harry Findlay await the rematch
Reports have suggested Findlay was prepared to bet on Kauto Star against his own star.
"It's no big secret I like a hot favourite and I've made a living out of backing champions. Kauto Star does come into that bracket," he conceded.
However, Findlay told BBC Sport he had backed Denman for the 2010 Gold Cup at 9-4 earlier in the season.
The Tank and McCoy have been under fire from some critics since his February flop and his odds have drifted to 9-2.
Findlay insisted the horse is healthy but the likely going conditions had worried punters.
"I think the odds are down to the lack of rain. We've had two or three dry weeks," said Findlay.
"What people have to understand is odds reflect the chances but they don't make the result.
"Good ground is not an issue for us but softer ground does make other horses more vulnerable and Cheltenham really could dry out by Gold Cup day."
Findlay lives just a 30-minute drive from the the Nicholls stable in Ditcheat, Somerset, and is a regular visitor.
"Both Kauto Star and Big Buck's (World Hurdle, Thursday) haven't had the slightest hiccup all year," he said.
"I believe Kauto Star was as impressive as he has ever been (on Boxing Day) and will put in one of his best performances at Cheltenham."
Denman trounced Kauto Star in 2008, before roles were reversed a year later when he had returned after a heart scare. He remains a force to be reckoned with.
"Harry has been playing it down a bit but I don't know if that's a bit of a bluff. I think Denman will turn up in very good shape," said Smith.
Findlay believes Denman's second Hennessy triumph, in November 2009, was arguably better than any of Kauto's 13 Grade One wins.
He also insisted victory last time out at Newbury, when stablemate Tricky Trickster edged out Niche Market after McCoy was unseated, was assured for Denman before he clattered a fence late on.
On two things, both camps are agreed - the likely Gold Cup 1-2 and the jockeys involved.
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