‘This could be the greatest National Hunt race ever’

It is being touted as the greatest Gold Cup match-up since Arkle took on Mill House in 1964, but this year’s duel between Kauto Star and Denman has a very personal context for legendary gambler Harry Findlay. Declan Colley reports.

THE REFINED country gentleman and the back-alley huckster - they don’t make up a comfortable stereotype as a pairing.

Paul Barber is the tweedy, well-spoken and gentrified type; Harry Findlay is the bare-knuckle spiv. They are hardly complementary, but due to happenstance and a curious twist of fortune they jointly own Denman, the horse they believe with strip Kauto Star of his Gold Cup crown.

They are a very unlikely combo – a fact Findlay himself confirms as “unreal” – but combo they are and, if their horse does manage to topple Kauto Star in the Gold Cup, then their presence in the winners’ enclosure will be as unlikely as Podge and Rodge owning a Derby winner.

Harry, the motor-mouth extrovert who has won and lost millions over the course of his gambling career (although he is currently considerably more financially stable than at any time in the past), is never lost for words, although he admits that he does find his current role as joint owner of the second favourite for the Gold Cup to be a complex and almost indefinable experience.

“The whole thing is unreal and, to be honest, the connection with Paul Barber makes it even more unreal because ever since Denman’s come to Paul Nicholls’, we’ve been closely involved with our horse and with Kauto Star as well. But the great thing about gambling and owning is that there is no real difference – you’re only a fan at the end of the day,” he says, by way of explanation for the mixed emotions he will experience between now and about 3.30 pm on Gold Cup day.

Barber and Findlay are indeed very different bedfellows, with the former only too willing to tell anyone interested in buying a horse that they better be prepared to lose their money, while the latter would advocate something similar, albeit while trying to land a major touch at the same time.

He has backed heavily on Denman throughout the horse’s career and has not done badly from it, particularly as the horse has won his last eight races. But the mere fact he’s associated with the horse has been every bit as exciting as winning shed-loads of money on him.

“It is great having a horse like Denman and while my Mum – who’s well into the horses – and I have been enjoying the experience of our association with him, it has been strange really to have been involved,” he reveals. “The only time I haven’t backed him heavily was when he got beat and that was only because Paul [Nicholls] wasn’t happy with him that day at Cheltenham. The day he got beat (by Nicanor in the Royal and SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle in 2006), we hadn’t laid out an ante-post coup or anything and, in fact, Paul wasn’t that pushed about running him that day.

“Since then, Denman has been a good friend financially, but for me it has been great to have had such a close involvement with him and to have seen the changes in him over the last few years has been amazing.

“The summer before last he was a real introvert and you’d almost have thought he’d shrunk in size because his personality was so low-key. But last summer all that changed. He was in a field at Paul’s place with Kauto, Twist Magic and two others, but when you arrived with the Polo mints, or whatever, he was always the guv’nor – all throughout the summer. The previous year he was all soft and that, but not this summer and that’s why I was so confident he’d be as forward as he was in the Hennessy and he was.

“Nothing has changed since, and when he won at Newbury [on Feb. 8], everyone was impressed with him. But even in my limited experience of horses I know he was definitely a little bit underdone that day and even in the pre-paddock, you could see it in him. He got all sweaty and that, but then to do what he did and to see the damage he caused, it really made me believe he’ll be spot on for the Gold Cup.

“Nicholls will have both horses spot-on. Paul himself will tell you that Kauto is the easier of the two to get ready. Even if he had to miss a few days work after his scare at Ascot, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world; whereas if it was Denman, it would have been. But now, the way it’s fallen, it is really on now and they will both be A1.”

Findlay confesses that he has had to try hard in recent months not to try and start picturing how the race will pan-out.

“This is going to be very different from anything we have seen in the Gold Cup for years,” he says. “We will have pace and Kauto will be coming at us, but I’ve looked forward to it so much – even since last year – I haven’t really played it out in my head yet. We believe we’re the stayer....God, there I am doing it now.”

Findlay’s a massive punter and has won a good few quid on Denman but first and foremost, he maintains, he’s always wanted this match.

“I’ve always been a big fan of matches. I love head-to-heads – doesn’t matter what sport it is. There’s something about it. Remember all those Coe v Ovett races years ago. This is the biggest equine Coe v Ovett of all time. And, talking to people in the business, you realise that this is not going to happen again. What everyone’s got to realise is that if Kauto Star gives Denman a real good hiding or shows too much speed then, who knows, we might end up being a National-type horse; or, by the same token, if there is a slight doubt about Kauto staying and we do relentlessly torch him, he might never do anything again.

“So, this could be the greatest National Hunt race of all time. It is the biggest horse race in my lifetime.”

The Scot-born fortysomething with the cockney accent – for all his protestations to the contrary – has two pictures in his head. The first has Denman winning, of course; but the second one only allows for Denman to lose if Kauto is the victor.

“I have thought about losing it,” he admits, “but only if Kauto does us on the run-in and I think that by that time I’ll be so buzzed out of my head I will love it anyway. I would love it if Kauto torches us – I know that sounds a daft thing to say – but if Denman comes second to Kauto, then I won’t mind. If Denman leads and Kauto does us, then I’ll have seen something really special.”

Like any honest gambler, Findlay admits that his opinions are not always on the money and he recalls the time when Desert Orchid’s victory in the Gold Cup left him completely and utterly penniless.

“I was wiped out,” he recalls. “We were in Gloucester the night before and it absolutely pissed down and I thought Desert Orchid was a 10/1 chance to win the Gold Cup. I laid him like mad and I bet on every soft ground horse in the race – I was on Yahoo at 66/1, I was on Ten Plus for telephone numbers and Ten Plus should have beaten Desert Orchid by 20 lengths, but he didn’t.”

He takes this as a salutary lesson in gambling and one he has learned from. On that basis he opines that until the race is run “Kauto is the guv’nor,”

“Whatever way it pans out, I know I’ll enjoy it because I know I’ll have seen the best race of all time. It will far surpass anything that has gone before. Who will win? Well I don’t know, but I already know Kauto can do it around Cheltenham – three miles two – on any type of ground. But I have my doubts. Three mile two around Cheltenham at a good pace becomes three miles three-and-a-quarter. So there has to be a doubt.”

Asked if he remembers the great Mill House-Arkle duels, he confesses he is too young to have seen them live, but he has had excellent counselling on the topic.

“I had Brough Scott in the house a couple of weeks back and I got the full commentary from him on their first Gold Cup battle and I’m glad I wasn’t watching it because I’d have lumped everything on Mill House on Betfair in running. Arkle was taking a tug, taking a tug and Mill House was doing his Denman act – jumping-wise. I’d have done my brains in if I was watching it. Obviously I’d have made my money back on Arkle over the rest of his career, because he was the machine of all machines.”

He admits that even as a professional gambler in a situation where he has to be nerveless, he is under tremendous pressure when Denman runs – not from himself, but from all the other people who have invested in his horse winning.

“I won a lot of money last year on Denman, but there were plenty of people who’d had just a monkey (£500) on in different races and it was more important to them in relative terms than whatever I won. I play with big stakes and it is my living, but for the ordinary punter, whatever they have on is the difference between whether they get to go back the next day or not. The pressure last year with Denman was massive, because so many people had their case money on him.”

Findlay maintains that in terms of the popularity of the two horses, Kauto probably deserves better from the public, but he thinks that people haven’t seemed to have forgiven him for those last fence blunders which characterised so many of his victories.

“That’s complete over-reaction in my book. It was the same for me with Liverpool when I backed them to beat Inter Milan after they’d been beaten by Barnsley in the Cup – the Cup loss was irrelevant. I backed Liverpool to beat Inter at 10/11, draw no bet, and it was ridiculous because Inter weren’t even trying and it was money for old rope. It is the same with Kauto Star and those last fence blunders, people get carried away.”

As far as Harry is concerned, the big question about Kauto is: does he stay?

“We all saw what happened last year. The drainage system is so good it meant there was genuine fast ground for the Gold Cup. In the opening two races that day last year, all the ex-flat horse just took off. After seven fences in the Gold Cup, Beef Or Salmon was leading in a hack canter and you could see that Ruby was just so confident on Kauto. He was riding like God at the time and he was just sat there, as confident as you like. If you stop the tape when they were three out Kauto Star was a 1/10 chance. Everything had gone right: the ground was fast, they’d gone no pace and Ruby had a great ride up the inside. But, stop the tape from two out and run it on to the winning line and you have to ask yourself if Kauto was much more impressive than Exotic Dancer when he only beat him by two lengths. I think Kauto has improved this year, but there has to be that doubt about him.”

He maintains that many of his ‘shrewdie’ friends in Ireland are just going to lay Kauto. “My job is gambling and I know what people are thinking and I know there are very, very shrewd people in Ireland who are out to get Kauto and who will back Denman. The shrewd money in Ireland is all with Denman – mainly because they feel he’s their horse,” he says.

Of his own exposure in the race, Findlay says he’s got “a bit of fourteens, a bit of sixes and plenty of 5/2”, but he says his opinion right now is that Denman can outstay Kauto Star, especially if there’s any rain.

Findlay maintains he has not run the race though in his mind, but there is a definite plan and one which Sam Thomas will have it embedded in his mind. According to Harry it sees Denman taking up the running at the head off affairs as they head out into the country for the second time.

“On the second circuit, I think Ruby knows where we’ll be – out in front. Then it’ll be a case of ‘come and get us, Rub-eee.’

Harry Findlay laughs at the thought, but pulls himself together quickly. Perhaps he’s just seen that mind’s eye picture of Denman winning the Gold Cup.

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