No panic from Nicholls as Denman takes a nosedive
The Tote's battle-bus, decked out to advertise Kauto Star versus Denman in next month's Gold Cup, duly trundled out of Newbury after the last race, but in the immediate aftermath of Denman's crashing fall in the Aon Chase, it seemed it might be heading straight back to the garage. The Decider, as it is being billed, between the last two Gold Cup winners is still on, but in betting terms at least, it is a head-to-head no more.
Tony McCoy, the new man in Denman's saddle, was the focus of much attention in the run-up to yesterday's race, but he would have needed to be strapped on like El Cid to survive the hot favourite's blunder three out.
Denman had clouted the previous fence too, surrendering the lead to Niche Market in the process. Then, as McCoy said, "he landed in the middle of the ditch, basically", and that was that.
With the 1/6 favourite out of the race, there was another twist as Tricky Trickster, ridden by Ruby Walsh, stayed on to collar Niche Market in the final strides. Walsh ceded the ride on Denman to McCoy when the horse's owners decided they wanted the same rider in both the Aon and the Gold Cup, and Walsh will be on Kauto Star, now no better than a 5/6 chance, at Cheltenham next month.
Both McCoy and Paul Nicholls, Denman's trainer, took a philosophical view of his failure, mindful perhaps that he improved dramatically between February and March last year after a stop-start season.
"It's very disappointing, more so for the owners and the trainer," McCoy said, "but I'm still looking forward to the Gold Cup. I've been in racing long enough to know that you have highs and lows.
"I was a little bit disappointed at the cross fence [five out] when I went to give him a squeeze and had a look behind, and I thought Niche Market would have been a lot further back than he was.
"I'm not saying that he would have been beaten [if he hadn't fallen] because there's no doubt that he's a good horse, and he can be a bit lazy. Who knows, if I'd given him a smack, he'd probably have flown up the straight."
Nicholls stressed that Denman will improve significantly for the run, and that a bigger field and stronger pace is likely to help his concentration. "If he hadn't made the mistake four out, he'd have galloped on and won and we wouldn't be having this conversation," Nicholls said.
"That's why Paul [Barber] and Harry [Findlay] wanted Tony to have a ride on him, because he's such a hard horse to know with his character. It's hard on those horses sometimes, you don't know how much they're kidding you, but until the mistake four out, everything was going perfectly.
"I've left so much to work on, and there's massive improvement in him from today, but what I might have to do is sharpen him up a bit mentally because he was a bit dozy there. But it shouldn't make any difference to him at Cheltenham, except that he hasn't won today so he'll be a bigger price than before."
Denman is now a 7/2 chance, having been no better than 9/4 morning, and for fans of the horse, it is certainly worrying that he never quite got into the kind of rhythm yesterday that dispatched Kauto Star to such devastating effect in the 2008 Gold Cup. If he can rediscover it at Cheltenham, 7/2 will seem a massive price with a circuit to run, but for now, anyone without an ante-post voucher already is likely to bide their time.
McCoy's day improved significantly as the meeting went on, with Get Me Out Of Here successful in the Totesport Trophy, the season's richest two-mile handicap hurdle, and Bellvano returning to winning form ahead of the Supreme Novice Hurdle.
Nicholls too recorded another valuable success as Master Minded took the Game Spirit Chase to move to odds-on for the Champion Chase next month. Ruby Walsh, his jockey, did particularly well to survive a horrible mistake at the final fence, not least as his partner had sailed over everything else.
At Warwick, Long Run took the Kingmaker Novice Chase despite giving Sam Waley-Cohen, his jockey, a couple of nervous moments. "He's still got a bit to learn, but ultimately we kept the partnership together," Waley-Cohen said afterwards.