Saturday, March 1, 2008

Ben Linfoot looks ahead to the clash everyone is talking about

"I hope Exotic Dancer beats them both," was A P McCoy's reply when asked the predictable Kauto Star or Denman question at Wednesday's handicap weights press conference at Cheltenham. It prompted a few sniggers from the gathered media, but on official figures and ratings and the like it really shouldn't have. He's only rated three pounds off nemesis Kauto Star, and though beaten by that rival five times previously he got very close to him at Haydock early in the season. Yet a no-show in the Letheby & Christopher was the first setback and alarm bells started ringing on Tuesday evening when Ladbrokes reacted to an odd exchange drift by pulling him out of the Gold Cup betting. Puzzled assurances from Jonjo O'Neill initially halted the slide but bookmakers are rarely wrong and so it was proved with news on Thursday from Barry Simpson, owner Sir Robert Ogden's racing manager, that all was not well with the Exotic one. It might only be a minor setback, but last year's runner-up is now out to 20/1 for the Festival showpiece and it feels more than ever like a supercharged match race. 'The Clash On Cleeve Hill' proclaims the Festival promotional bus and as horse racing PR goes this is a pretty flashy effort. In the next week or so it should go into overdrive. Arkle v Mill House comparisons will be aplenty but I can imagine more of a Seabiscuit v War Admiral spin. Instead of Charles Howard rallying an excited throng from the end of a train imagine Harry Findlay and Clive Smith having a friendly arm wrestle from the open top bus. Perhaps Paul Barber's more slender frame would be fairer on old Clive. There is no getting away from it and why would we want to? Kauto Star v Denman is the story of the week and anticipation will be at fever pitch by the fourth day. 'So whose camp are you in?' will become the most-used conversation starter at every bar in Prestbury Park and beyond into Cheltenham town itself. I must admit I haven't agonised over such a dilemma since asked if I'd prefer Buttercup Fool or Lemon Chiffon to brighten up the spare bedroom. Week by week my view has altered. Each time I'm asked the question I wrinkle my nose, shrug my shoulders and raise my hands, palms open. Yet as the day approaches the little punter that lives inside my head keeps whispering Denman. Denman. Maybe Denmania is setting in. I keep imagining how the race could unfold. Denman sets an unrelenting gallop. Kauto Star is travelling well in the pack, laughing at the likes of Turpin Green, who isn't enjoying it as much this year. Denman is foot-perfect at each fence, Kauto Star likewise in behind. Then jumping the second-last, Denman is tanking along six lengths clear, with Ruby Walsh getting a little anxious back on Kauto. He tries to quicken his mount but gets no response, he has nothing left to offer after such a strong pace. Denman powers up the hill, Sam Thomas reaches for the sky with his whip, celebrating victory. Kauto Star follows him home, a gallant second. Basically, I'm reiterating Findlay's much-maligned 'does Kauto Star really stay?' poser. Four Grade One wins over three miles at Haydock and Kempton may convince some that the answer is a resounding 'yes' but neither course is anywhere near as testing as Cheltenham. Add the hill and the extra two-and-a-half furlongs of the Gold Cup and it's a very different test of stamina altogether. We haven't even mentioned the possibility of soft ground. 'But he won it last year' you cry. Yes, off an incredibly slow pace for an 18-runner Gold Cup. Whichever way you look at it, the race played into the hands of a proven speedster. Reservations over Kauto's staying power were not dismissed then and they still aren't now. Maybe I'm clutching at straws. Maybe I've fallen for Findlay's belief and enthusiasm. Maybe gut feeling is taking over all sense of rationale. After all, Kauto's class is undeniable. He is a superstar of a racehorse, a freak even. To win so many top-level races at the variety of distances he has is incredible, and his career has been a joy to follow over the last few seasons. If he can beat his machine-like stablemate in the 'Clash On Cleeve Hill' his star will shine even brighter. We shall see. For now I shall be listening to the voices in my head.


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