Denman 'really up for' Hennessy tilt
IF records seems to beckon Paul Nicholls at every turn, it is partly down to sheer longevity.
That is how Kauto Star finds himself favourite to win the King George at Kempton for a fifth consecutive year when he will be ridden, as expected, by Noel Fehily.
And that is how Denman could achieve his own piece of history with a third Hennessy Gold Cup in four years at Newbury on Saturday. Given all their time together, then it surely counts for plenty when Nicholls says that both remain as good as ever.
All horses, inevitably, reach the bottom of the barrel sooner or later. But while Kauto Star and Denman are approaching their 11th birthdays, Nicholls has yet to detect the faintest decline.
"They'll tell me," he said. "I don't have to look for it. Remember that See More Business ran in the Gold Cup when he was 13. To me, none of them will be a back number until they suggest as much on the track.
"I'm as happy with Denman as I have been for the last few years. It's amazing when you think back to the day he got beat at Kempton (in February 2009) after his heart problems. I must admit, I did think we were in trouble then. But he looks really up for it at the moment.
"With his rugs off, he looks A1, and his schooling has been good. Ruby (Walsh) rode him round the school six weeks ago and you should have seen the smile on his face. He said the horse hadn't felt so good in three years."
Walsh having in the meantime broken a leg, Nicholls has turned to Fehily for most of his better horses. And yesterday he confirmed that Fehily would ride Kauto Star in the William Hill King George VI Chase after the Cork native got a brilliant round of jumping out of Master Minded, in the same Clive Smith silks, at Ascot last Saturday.
Denman, however, will be ridden on Saturday by Sam Thomas, as he was when he won his first Hennessy and the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Nicholls is unabashed that Denman runs off a rating of 182, as opposed to 161 in 2007, and 174 last year. "You could actually argue that it's not quite as difficult a task, because there are so many out of the handicap this year," he reasoned. Of his four other runners in the Hennessy, the champion trainer reserves his most conspicuous endorsement for Taranis, which will be returning from another long lay-off.
His impressive success at Cheltenham last January remains his only start in just under three years. "But that showed he goes well fresh," Nicholls said. "And 10st 4lb is a nice weight. Off that weight, I'd say he must be one of the big dangers."
He suspects that Fehily's mount Neptune Collonges may be "just a bit too big and well" and so needs the race; Niche Market's priority is the John Smith's Grand National; while The Tother One simply isn't cut out to carry big weights in smaller races.
What a contrast to Denman, a horse which shoulders big weights in massive races and keeps coming back for more.
Meanwhile, Barry Geraghty is set to partner China Rock in Saturday's Newbury showpiece as the Meath man is unable to do the weight on Burton Port for his retained yard of Nicky Henderson.
Geraghty was in the plate when the Mouse Morris-trained gelding finished third behind Kauto Star at Down Royal earlier this month.
"I can't ride at 10st so it looks like I'll be riding China Rock," said Geraghty. "He carries 10st 4lb, and that's the lowest I can do anyway." Andrew Tinkler will take the ride on Burton Port. (© Independent News Service)