With Denman, the will was always stronger than the skill

Muhammad Ali may have been famous for his razor-sharp one-liners but it was one of his deeper, more profound statements that came to mind when the sad news of Denman’s death, aged 18, emerged yesterday morning.

“Champions are made from something they have deep inside them - a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

As per usual, Ali was referring to his favourite subject: Ali. But he might just as easily have been referring to the horse who in 2008 turned the most eagerly-awaited Cheltenham Gold Cup showdown in a generation into a glorious procession.

Though his second Hennessy success in 2009 was more emotional, the sheer magnificence of Denman’s Gold Cup triumph was undoubtedly his finest hour.

In opposition, Denman faced stablemate Kauto Star, a spectacular talent who would end his career having won the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, the King George five times, the Betfair Chase four times, and the Tingle Creek twice.

Then there was another stablemate in Neptune Collonges, a horse with sufficient talent to win an Aintree Grand National four years later.

Outside of the Paul Nicholls battalion, there was Exotic Dancer, a horse who in a less exalted era might have won two Gold Cups.

This was a Gold Cup of vast depth but you wouldn’t have known it when Sam Thomas allowed Denman to stretch his legs as the field went out on his final circuit.

Jumping flawlessly, a relentless Denman kept turning the screw. A long way from home, the writing was on the wall.

We wouldn’t get the showdown we anticipated pre-race but what we did see was no less majestic, the seven-length margin of victory over Kauto Star not even beginning to tell the story of Denman’s superiority. 

No Gold Cup since has been won in such imperious fashion. One suspects that very few before were either.

There was, however, a price to be paid for such a supreme effort. In hindsight, the fact it took two hours to cool the winner down was an early sign of things to come. 

The following September Denman was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. 

Though he would recover sufficiently to finish second in the next three Gold Cups, he would never again be quite the same force of nature.

However, even a slightly diminished Denman was still a sight to behold and, off the back for his health woes, his second Hennessy triumph in 2009 was laced with emotion as ‘The Tank’ delivered an Arkle-esque performance under top weight to get the better of stablemate What A Friend. Heroic doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Given the gargantuan task he faced, the fact he was sent off the 11-4 favourite that day in Newbury and the 4-1 favourite when a gallant third in the same race 12 months later might seem odd.

However, that reckons without the extraordinarily close connection this horse forged with the racing public. 

His fans simply adored him, believing his sheer will could make the impossible possible. 

Why the love? 

The answer is simple: No horse ever tried harder. With Denman, the will was always stronger than the skill.


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