Top 10 Most Popular Horses: Denman tanks into 3rd place

3rd: Denman
3rd: Denman

We continue our countdown of the Top 10 Most Popular Horses of the 21st Century, and at number three on the list is one of the finest chasers of all time, Denman, who during a glittering career bagged Cheltenham Gold Cup glory alongside a plethora of other prestigious events...

Paul Nicholls was already firmly established as a top notch National Hunt trainer as we headed into the 21st Century, but it was at the start of the 2000s that saw the Ditcheat handler rocket into the limelight as he amassed a stunning bunch of top notch performers, who for a decade performed at the highest level.

One of those luminaries at the Somerset yard was the mighty Denman, who was once-raced before he made his British debut at Wincanton in October 2005 for Nicholls. A magnificent novice hurdle campaign saw him saunter to a host of victories including in the Grade 1 Challow Novices' Hurdle before he was sent off an 11/10 favourite for the Grade 1 Royal & Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle (now Ballymore Novices' Hurdle) at the 2006 Cheltenham Festival. However, the son of Presenting suffered his first career defeat as the Noel Meade-trained Nicanor caused an almighty shock by bounding to a two-and-a-half length win.

A real stamp of a horse, Denman was always destined for a career over fences, and Nicholls was quick to send him over the larger obstacles the following season. Like a duck to water, Denman relished the test the chasing game brought, and he reeled off a host of facile novice chase wins before he returned to Cheltenham in March to compete in the Royal & Sun Alliance Chase. Sent off another red-hot favourite at 6/5, Denman made no mistake this time around, as he ground his rivals into submission with a sensational display of jumping, and he battered the second placed Snowy Morning by ten lengths in one of the finest novice chase displays witnessed at Prestbury Park.

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Denman's dominant RSA victory left owners Paul Barber and Harry Findlay dreaming of potential Cheltenham Gold Cup glory, but the enigmatic pair would have a notable adversary in the shape of the Clive Smith-owned Kauto Star, who was also under the stewardship of Nicholls, and the pair would light up the National Hunt division for the next few years with some epic tussles.

With Nicholls having the two premier British staying chasers in his yard, he had to adopt a juggling act to keep the pair apart in the lead-up to Cheltenham, and Denman would be sent down the handicap route, and the Hennessy Gold Cup would prove to be his port of call in his first race outside of the novice division. Handed top weight for the 2007 Hennessy, Denman had to give 9lbs and more to the rest of the field, but he duly produced one of the finest weight carrying performances, as he romped to an exhilarating 11-length victory in the Newbury showpiece.

Denman Stats_1

Wins in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown and the Aon Chase at Newbury saw him head to the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup in red-hot form, but with stablemate Kauto Star having won the 2007 Gold Cup, and having excelled in the lead-up to the race, Denman was sent off a 9/4 second favourite behind Kauto Star, who was sent off an odds-on jolly. But, it was to be Kauto Star that faltered on the big stage, as a scintillating display of galloping and jumping eventually broke the reigning champion, who was the pick of stable jockey Ruby Walsh, and Sam Thomas - on board Denman - rocketed up the Cheltenham hill to extend his unbeaten run over fences to eight.

Rated in the low 180s, Denman had rapidly become one of the finest chasers of all time, but the winning run came to an abrupt end when he suffered a shock defeat to Madison Du Berlais in a Grade 2 event at Kempton in February 2009. Returning to Cheltenham the following month bidding to retain his Gold Cup crown, Denman had to settle for the silver medal as Kauto Star produced a sublime display to snatch back his Gold Cup crown, with Denman gallant in defeat.

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Most Iconic Performance

After running a fine race in defeat in the 2009 Cheltenham Gold Cup, Nicholls opted to send Denman back to Newbury for the 2009 Hennessy Gold Cup, and what racegoers witnessed that day at Newbury was one of the finest staying handicap chase performances of all time, as Denman stormed to an emphatic second win in the Hennessy.

Carrying 11st 12lbs yet again, the horse given the nickname 'The Tank', had to give more than a stone to all his rivals, with the next in the handicap Barbers Shop (10st 8lbs) unable to land a glove on him. Adopting the habitual prominent running tactics from the outset Ruby Walsh got Denman into a real rhythm over his obstacles, and one by one he gradually broke his rivals. Turning for home, Walsh continued to pour it on out front, but the lightly-weighted stablemate What A Friend (10st 4lbs) was reeling him in, and at the last fence the fellow Ditcheat raider eye-balled Denman, and the pair jumped the last fence in unison.

Ironically it was the aforementioned Thomas, who had piloted Denman to Hennessy glory two years ago, that was on board What A Friend, but as he looked to push his mount past Denman, an action-packed Walsh managed to cajole Denman back out in front, which broke the heart of What A Friend, who ran a mighty race in defeat, but was ultimately beaten by a superstar. 

Unforgettable scenes broke out in the jam-packed Newbury stands, as Denman managed to pull over three-and-a-half lengths clear of What A Friend to win a momentous second Hennessy crown. While it may not hold the prestige of a Cheltenham Gold Cup, Denman's second Hennessy win just highlighted what the gelding was all about - tenacity, class, will to win and brilliance.

That 2009 Hennessy win would turn out to be his last success, but the remaining couple of years of his career would still see him produce some fine performances in defeat. A seven-length second to Imperial Commander in the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup was followed by a third placed finish in the 2010 Hennessy, where he was beaten by the new kid on the block, Diamond Harry.

A fourth Cheltenham Gold Cup outing in 2011 saw him suffer defeat to another young gun in Long Run, but yet again Denman was gallant in defeat as he finished second to Nicky Henderson's charge in one of the finest Gold Cups in living memory. A win and three seconds in the Cheltenham Gold Cup during his career just emphasises the brilliance of the Nicholls-trained legend, and he was to run his last race the following month, and following a defeat to Nacarat in the Totesport Bowl in April 2011, 'The Tank' would retire at the age of 11.

Ranking so far:

10 - Native River

9 - Sea The Stars

8 - Tiger Roll

7 - Hurricane Fly

6 - Enable

5 - Sprinter Sacre

4 - Faugheen

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