Paul Nicholls was full of pride after seeing Denman and Kauto Star go down fighting in an epic renewal of the totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Dual winner Kauto Star may have disappointed when seeking a fifth King George at Kempton, but on this occasion he travelled with the panache that has been his trademark for so many years, taking up the running with a full circuit to go in the hands of Ruby Walsh.
Denman, the Gold Cup hero of 2008, made rather more laboured progress through the field, but the stable companions and old rivals set sail for home running down the hill and for a moment it looked as though they would roll back the years.
However, King George winner Long Run was waiting in the wings and his younger legs carried him to the lead approaching the final fence and he stormed away up the hill.
Denman filled the runner-up spot for the third time in this race, with Kauto Star just holding off another Nicholls inmate, What A Friend, to finish third.
Nicholls said: “I’m not disappointed at all, believe me. Nobody likes getting beaten, but I’m just so proud of the horses.
“That race was great for racing. This marks the changing of the guard and I’ve never doubted that. Our two old boys put it up to Long Run, but he came through and he’s the best young horse in training.
“We’ve got to try and find something to tackle him now, but that may not be so easy.
“Long Run is the champion now, but our horses have gone down in a blaze of glory.”
Nicholls refused to be drawn on whether retirement beckons for his 11-year-olds, but saw more than enough in their individual performances to at least consider there are more big days for them yet.
“I don’t know what the future holds. I’ve got to sit down and talk to the owners and I’m not going to make any quick decisions,” the champion trainer continued.
“Kauto has given his all and I don’t know whether he’ll want to run again this season.
“I always half felt Punchestown would suit him, but we’ll give him a bit of time and see.
“There is nothing much left for Denman as he has to go left-handed and he won’t go to Aintree.
“But on that sort of form, there is no reason both horses can’t run again.
“Why can’t Denman run again in the Hennessy next season? If either of them shows any sign at all that they can’t run well any more, they won’t.
“But they’ve been in great form at home and they showed today we made the right call in running them. Who’s to say they won’t be back here next year if we look after them?
“Take Long Run out, we’d have been first, second and third again.
“What A Friend ran a blinder and I thought he’d be in the first four if he ran up to his best back on this better ground.
“It was just an amazing race and I’m proud to be part of it.”
Kauto Star’s owner Clive Smith echoed Nicholls’ sentiments and was keen to praise Nicky Henderson’s first Gold Cup winner.
“Kauto has had a wonderful career and we’ll just have to see what happens now. Well sit down and talk about it,” said Smith.
“There was definitely a stage when I thought he could win, especially when Ruby was taking control down the back straight.
“I thought he had every chance coming down the hill, but you’ve got to hand it to Long Run. He’s obviously got a great turn of foot to come past Kauto and Denman, and he has a younger pair of legs.
“It would be easy to say retire him now, but we’ll see. He might hate it if he was retired and he certainly ran well today.”
Denman’s rider Sam Thomas said: “He’s come back here three or four times now and not finished worse than second, but there was a much younger horse there today.
“I had a bit of a job just to get him to lay up early on as he wasn’t really in love with it.
“The ground wasn’t the problem, it’s the speed they go on the ground, but he’s done a great job to keep involved, the further he goes the more he enjoys it, he’s a pleasure to ride.”
Walsh was full of praise for his mount, saying: “It was a good gallop and Kauto has run an absolute cracker.
“I was just hanging on to him a little bit in the hope that we could accelerate off the bend, but he’s an 11-year-old and that acceleration is just not there.
“Paul had him spot on, he jumped and he travelled. He’s been some horse, but the younger brigade have landed on him today.”
What A Friend will be the forgotten horse of the Nicholls brigade following the incredible performances of Kauto Star and Denman, but his high-profile owner Sir Alex Ferguson was more than happy.
“I can’t think of seeing a better race than that,” said the Manchester United manager.
“He had three great horses in front of him so we are delighted with him. We might look at the Scottish National.”
The most obvious disappointment was reigning champion Imperial Commander, who was pulled up before two fences from home.
His trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies revealed afterwards that his star turn had burst a blood vessel.
“It happened just at the top of the hill, which is why he made a bad mistake at that fence,” said the Naunton handler.
“I don’t think he’ll run again this season.
“He’ll probably start off in the Betfair Chase at Haydock (in November) again next season.”
Course specialist Midnight Chase ran well to finish fifth, with Tidal Bay once again running on when it was all over to finish sixth.
Willie Mullins, trainer of the Tony McCoy-ridden Kempes, who was pulled up, said: “I’m very disappointed. I don’t know what went wrong, he never really travelled and that’s it.”