A bit of local rivalry always helps to crank up some sporting tension and it doesn’t get much more local than two racehorses stabled next door to each other, with a window between their boxes so they can be constantly aware of each other’s moods.
Kauto Star and Denman lived like that for years while fans, punters and bookmakers argued over which was the better steeplechaser but it was a rivalry that never really led to the expected thrills on the track until the Cheltenham Gold Cup of 2011.
Both were past their best by then. They had peaked a couple of years earlier, when Denman defied a crushing burden to win his second Hennessy and Kauto Star pulled an astonishing 36 lengths clear of the King George field.
Each year, they would take each other on in the Gold Cup and their anticipated battle was constantly debated during the months of buildup. But the head-to-head struggle we all hoped to see just didn’t happen.
Kauto Star couldn’t lay a glove on the other horse after an interrupted preparation in 2008 and their tussle was as one-sided in the other direction the next year, after Denman’s heart problems. In the 2010 race, Kauto Star fell at the fourth-last and Denman was bested by the upstart Imperial Commander. “Oh well,” we all sighed. “The end of an era…”
By the time Cheltenham rolled around again both horses were 11, which is clearly too old for a modern Gold Cup against super-fit rivals. There hadn’t been a winner of that age since the race was broadcast in black and white.
Still, it was great to have them back in the lineup for the fourth year in a row, which by itself was a tribute to the skills of their Somerset-based trainer, Paul Nicholls. They had both been through a lot by that stage but their enthusiasm for the game never waned. They coped with life in their different ways, the chipper and gregarious Kauto taking an interest in whatever was happening around him, while the misanthropic Denman turned his powerful backside toward any visitors.
Anyone could see they were still coping at halfway in the Gold Cup, lobbing along on the heels of the leaders, seemingly unstressed by the race’s relentless pace. Behind them, talented animals were working hard to stay in touch, like Carruthers, who would win the Hennessy later that year, and Neptune Collonges, destined to end his career with Grand National victory.
As they turned away from the stands to begin the final circuit, Ruby Walsh let Kauto Star stride into the lead and the crowd cheered its approval. With his pricked ears and evident willingness, the old horse seemed ageless, gliding along the back straight while the pursuing group got smaller and smaller.
And then, as they raced back downhill, it happened. Denman, paceless but resolute, had plodded his way into contention and now moved alongside his stablemate as Imperial Commander, who had misjudged the fourth-last, dropped out. Here it was, at long last, when we had given up hope: Denman and Kauto Star, shoulder to shoulder at the turn for home.
They looked so like themselves in those 30 seconds they shared the Gold Cup lead, Kauto Star coasting, doing it all on raw ability while the Stakhanovite Denman kept up an extraordinary work rate to stay alongside. It was a delicious moment, four years in the making.
But 11 really is too old to win a Gold Cup and Long Run proved it by sweeping past them on the approach to the final fence. This was as it should be, since he was the exciting young talent of the moment, barely half their age. It felt absolutely right the veterans had one last, thrilling spin around the stage and then, in departing, had lent some of their lustre to the sport’s new hero. That’s how the world looked at the time, anyway.
In fact, Long Run became disappointing, for reasons that were hard to pin down, and the amazingly durable Kauto Star achieved a couple of big-race wins at his expense the next winter.
Like so many other classy steeplechasers, Long Run really had only one year at the absolute top of his game but he was unbeatable that day and no Gold Cup winner ever had a better supporting cast.