Paul Nicholls’ duo Kauto Star and Denman are again set to scrap out the totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup after the latter’s magnificent return to form in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury.
Ladbrokes cannot separate the pair and make them the 2-1 joint favourites for the championship event which they have dominated for the last three years.
The sponsors marginally favour Kauto Star at 7-4 and make Denman – the winner in 2008 and runner-up after a heart problem last March – second best at 9-4.
Denman landed the Hennessy under top weight two years ago and repeated the feat as the 11-4 favourite for Nicholls’ stable jockey Ruby Walsh.
The Queen’s Barbers Shop and the Alex Ferguson-owned What A Friend were the only obvious dangers turning to the final four fences but Denman knows his way home and maintained his unbeaten Newbury record.
Stablemate What A Friend challenged over the final fence but Denman went away again and was three and a half lengths clear at the line, with Niche Market and Barbers Shop filling the other placings.
Nicholls said: “I never thought he would come back like that and to see a run like that from Denman is very, very special. It one of those great moments we will never forget.
“I feel mighty proud of the horse. I knew we had him somewhere near his best in himself, but to go and do that and beat the horses who kept challenging him is awesome.”
Denman followed up his 2007 Hennessy win with victory in Leopardstown’s Lexus Chase but Nicholls said: “If it means getting him to Cheltenham like today I might only give him one more run in something like the Aon as he loves it around here.
“For what he has been through to come back, what a Gold Cup it will be this year.”
Walsh said: “For him to come back and do what he has done and for Kauto to win last week – they are two wonderful horses to keep racing on the pages for the right reasons and it is great to be riding the two of them.”
Denman is owned in partnership by West Country dairy farmer Paul Barber and the extrovert professional gambler Harry Findlay, and the latter dominated the winner’s enclosure to rapturous applause.
He said: “Whenever he has come down the home straight here at Newbury he has come down it like a missile and when he turned for home I screamed at him ’come on Denman, one more time’.
“I’m so happy for the people here and coming to the last I saw the race as I would as a teenager – I just wanted him to win and it is something we will all remember.”
Earlier, Big Buck’s had made the perfect return for Nicholls, Walsh and owner Andy Stewart when outclassing his rivals in the sportingbet.com Long Distance Hurdle.
The World Hurdle hero laughed at the front-running Lough Derg all the way up the straight to come home unchallenged.
Walsh held on to him until letting out an inch of rein on the run-in, where the 2-5 favourite quickly settled the issue, scoring by seven lengths with a further five back to Duc De Regniere.
Some bookmakers were forced to make Big Buck’s odds-on to retain his staying hurdle crown in March, such was the welter of money.
Nicholls, who advised Stewart to agree to bring Big Buck’s back to hurdling after his defeat in the Hennessy a year ago, said: “Andy thought I was mad but it’s the best thing I did and that’s the best he’s ever jumped today.
“I felt he only had to improve a bit to become the best horse in the yard and he is now the finished article. It will be the Long Walk Hurdle (at Ascot) next and the traditional route back to Cheltenham.”