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Time to dismiss Denman's Gold Cup challenge.

Byline: David Ashforth

FOR Denman fans there are various possible straws to clutch at, but the most obvious interpretation of his performance at Kempton last Saturday is likely to prove the correct one - that, sadly, last year's Cheltenham Gold Cup winner isn't the horse he was.

Denman was returning from a long layoff; Cheltenham is a much more suitable stage for his talents; Madison Du Berlais is a very good horse, particularly on flat tracks (0 from 5 at Cheltenham); the ground was holding; Denman kept on towards the finish and, although trounced by the winner he, in turn, trounced Albertas Run. Those are the straws. Unfortunately, they can't erase the evidence of one's own eyes.

Too much was wrong, in stark contrast to so much that had been right before. Denman's demeanour - instead of zest and bounce, it looked as if he didn't want to be there. Denman's jumping - instead of taking Ruby Walsh keenly into the fences, and devouring them, he was unenthusiastic and ordinary. The real Denman isn't ordinary, anything but.

Perhaps that is the problem. When putting his Gold Cup opponents to the sword, with an unrelenting, draining gallop, Denman gave his all. It may not be there to give any more. Paul Nicholls' post-race comments suggest that he may have the same concern.

We can't know for sure and it will be interesting to read Nicholls' thoughts in his Saturday column, after having had time to reflect. The fact that post-race veterinary reports seem to have been positive is good news and means that the Gold Cup remains the target, but it is very difficult to see Denman winning. To believe that requires us to believe that his performance at Kempton can be ignored, and that we will see a different horse on Gold Cup day. That is expecting an awful lot, and calls for a huge act of faith.

Nicholls is a great trainer but he is not a miracle worker and, although it would be exhilarating to see a repeat of his Gold Cup performance, it isn't going to happen. If you take sentiment out of the equation, then laying Denman, even at about 11-2, looks a horribly safe option.

'Nicholls is a great trainer but he is not a miracle worker'
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Feb 12, 2009
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