Pressure’s all on Kauto Star, not on me or Denman
The battle of the big two on a couple of fronts will dominate the Cheltenham festival of racing over four days next week. Step into the ring Kauto Star and Denman with Ruby Walsh and Tony McCoy in the respective plates.
It could not have worked out better as the horses, in some ways, reflect the characters of the two jockeys.
Many punters prefer the more relaxed and cool style of Walsh who had the choice of mounts for the Gold Cup on the two Paul Nicholls-trained champions. Not surprisingly he has decided to stay with Kauto who bids to join the greats such as Golden Millar, Cottage Rake and Arkle — the best of all — in striking Gold for a third time.
Kauto made his own bit of history last year in becoming the first horse to regain the crown after losing it. And the one to destroy his first hat-trick bid was none other than Denman who occupies the next box at Dicheat.
French-bred Kauto is the smaller, flashier type with speed and a touch of flair, not unlike Ruby whose riding style is radically different from that of McCoy, the unrelenting Moneyglass man who has strength, power and the ability to lift, drive and cajole a horse like no other in the sport.
So one would think he and Denman are the perfect match, although their first pairing at Newbury ended in disappointing failure when Denman had one of his off days and fell.
The horse though is not known as ‘The Tank’ for nothing. Once he starts to rock and roll and is in the right mood and rhythm, he simply overpowers everything else with stamina, durability and a reluctance to surrender a lead.
McCoy has dominated jump racing for the last 14 years in terms of winners and titles, although Walsh has the better festival record with 24 wins compared to Tony’s 21, simply due to the stables Ruby rides for, Nicholls and Willie Mullins.
McCoy, however, has won all the big races at the festival — Walsh has not, having yet to win a Champion Hurdle, though he has been leading rider for the last two years and beat McCoy’s previous best of five winners with seven in 2009.
The attention will be very much on McCoy and Denman after that Newbury disaster and reflecting on that McCoy said: “I'm very much looking forward to the race and obviously what happened at Newbury wasn't the plan.
“He probably wasn't 100 per cent wound-up and it wouldn't surprise me if he's a horse that does need to be exactly that.
“He got a little bit tight into the first one in the straight and was a bit unlucky the way he landed as he kind of slipped.
“Maybe he frightened himself a little and that's why he did what he did at the ditch.
“I'd like to think you learn something on every horse you ride and I think I learned enough about him that day.
“He has his quirks but he's a very good horse and I suppose all the pressure is on Kauto Star now.”
The Ulsterman will make sure Star is under the cosh and out of his comfort zone during the race.
McCoy was mortified after being unseated four out, his grim expression registering no improvement even when he won the subsequent Totesport Trophy Hurdle.
Failure is not part of Tony’s vocabulary and he will have felt that he let everyone down on that occasion, although Nicholls was quick to dismiss such a thing.
“Those saying he shouldn't ride Denman are talking rubbish,” he said.
“The mistake four out could have happened to anybody. I've watched the replay several times and I'm very happy at how he was going up to then.”
The trainer knows that was a warm-up race only.
The real test comes next week and don’t forget that Denman, after destroying Kauto two years ago, ran a great race to be second last year when he was considered a non-runner two weeks before the race, such was his lack of well-being.
Apart from Denman, McCoy has a host
of top rides, including Captain Cee Bee in the Arkle, probably Binocular in the Champion Hurdle and anything else that carries the colours of JP McManus, who is renowned for his major tilts in the betting ring.
McCoy did the business for JP last year with one of the greatest rides seen at Cheltenham when getting Witicha Lineman home after jumping the last fence in only third spot in the William Hill Handicap Chase. It’s that brilliance and toughness that makes him a winner and a hard man to beat in a finish.
Look out for him in the opening race on JP’s Get Me Out of Here in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. If anything can beat the Irish hot-pot Dunguib, it is this fellow.