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Kauto's date with Denman

Jump racing super-heavyweights Denman and Kauto Star bear a huge weight of expectation as they head along a familiar path towards 2010.

These two giants of the game have gone head-to-head only twice before, both times in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and the score stands at one each. Their clash next March is sure to be billed as 'the decider'.

It is the most eagerly awaited event of the upcoming year and bookmakers are finding it difficult to split the Paul Nicholls-trained pair at the top of the market.

It was a similar situation in the Gold Cup two seasons ago, even down to the fact that Denman had just won the Hennessy and Kauto Star was about to defend his Cheltenham crown.


That race, won by Denman with a display that was nothing short of awesome, was the most anticipated clash in steeplechasing for 40 years, bringing to memory the heady days of Arkle and Mill House.

Kauto Star became the first horse ever to regain the Gold Cup crown last March, but the rival trailing 13 lengths in his wake was not the Denman of his pomp, but rather a lesser variety diminished by health problems.

They are behind him now, as his second Hennessy victory proved so conclusively last month, and we can look forward to a third Prestbury Park face-off with eager delight.

As far as the other great championship event of the Cheltenham Festival is concerned, the Champion Hurdle, we are swimming in far muddier waters.


The contenders are having a devil of a job getting into any sort of pecking order and if it remains that way until the day, then the excitement will be all the keener when they line up on the opening afternoon in mid-March.

Who else will emerge from the Festival as an outstanding gold medallist? Big Buck's, who is already the stayers' champion? Irish 'banker' Dunguib in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle? Master Minded? Punchestowns? Ah, the thrill of it all.

Flat racing in 2010 has a hard act to follow, with the all-conquering Sea The Stars barely out of the headlines and off to the breeding sheds.

His almost inevitable departure from the scene was followed by that of his jockey, the decorated veteran Mick Kinane, and the vacancy at the John Oxx yard has been filled by Fran Berry. He has been a star at home for several years and finished third to Johnny Murtagh and Pat Smullen in the 2009 jockeys' title race, but he has made little impact further afield so far. That is about to change.

Other riders expected to make the headlines are Murtagh himself, who will be on a host of Coolmore starlets as well as Rip Van Winkle and Fame And Glory, and former champion Kieren Fallon, who can be expected to challenge for the title now his troubled career is back on the rails.

There could be more good prizes for the up-and-coming Ahmed Ajtebi, too, now he has established a firm connection with Sheikh Mohammed's team.

But, what of the horses? Well, St Nicholas Abbey, named after a colonial plantation house in Barbados, is the one most likely to be giving supporters cause for celebration at Epsom in early June.


The Aidan O'Brien-trained colt showed a remarkable turn of foot in winning what looked a top-class renewal of the Racing Post Trophy in October and heads the market for both the 2000 Guineas and the Derby, the latter from his stablemate Jan Vermeer.

Cheveley Park winner Special Duty is the one they have to beat in the 1,000 Guineas, but the Oaks is wide open, though Henry Cecil would once more be assured of a rapturous reception if he could lift the prize with Timepiece or Kithonia.

The turf Flat season begins at the end of March, but all eyes will inevitably be on Dubai around that time, as the World Cup is due to be staged at the new Meydan racecourse in the financially troubled emirate.

All the indications are that this will set the benchmark for opulence in the international racing industry, and let's hope it will also be a beacon for continued massive support for the sport from its greatest benefactors, the Maktoum family.