When it comes to great winners of the Ladbrokes Trophy, formerly the Hennessy Gold Cup, there are few in recent years that match up to the mighty Denman.
His success in 2007 would be the start of a whirlwind few months for the Paul Nicholls-trained gelding, ultimately ending with victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup the following March.
Having finished the previous season with victory in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham, the then seven-year-old carried top weight of 11st 12lb to glory and make a winning return to action.
Taking it up five out, the Paul Barber-owned gelding galloped on resolutely to defeat Dream Alliance by 11 lengths, in a display described by commentator Simon Holt as “one of the great performances in the long history of the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup”.
Although a decade has passed since the horse affectionately known as ‘The Tank’ ground his rivals into submission in the historic handicap – which he would win again in 2009 with a tremendous weight-carrying performance – it is a memory that is still vivid in the mind of the Ditcheat handler.
Nicholls said: “It is astonishing how time has gone by. That was an amazing day. It was the first of his two Hennessy wins and he was on a roll at the time, winning the Gold Cup later that season.
“He won the RSA and we thought we would get him right for the Hennessy. We gave him lots of time to get over the RSA.
“It is not easy to get them right first time out for a race like that, but he was bang on for it. He was tough and classy and carrying that 11st 12lb – it was just a big day.
“You are concerned carrying top weight, but as Phil Smith (handicapper) has said, a lot of top-weights win handicaps as they are the best horse in the race.
“We thought he had a big chance, but I was slightly nervous as it was his first run of the season and the Hennessy is a competitive race. But he absolutely bolted in
“It was a great day and he was a great horse, he will always be part of the history of the race.”
This year’s renewal also marks another milestone moment for the 10-times champion trainer, being the 30th anniversary of him winning the race as a jockey for the second time.
Having teamed up with trainer David Barons to win in 1986 with Broadheath, the pair combined to good effect again 12 months later through Playschool, who would also claim the Welsh National and Irish Gold Cup.
Nicholls said: “I won it on 1986 on Broadheath and that was a bit of a surprise, as he was just an ordinary handicapper. I remember the very next race after the Hennessy was a novice chase and Playschool had his first run over fences.
“I had just won the Hennessy and I didn’t care what David Barons told me to do. Instead of making the running, which he asked me to do, I dropped him out last. He jumped well and turning into the straight I gave him a kick and he won.
“I remember coming back into the winner’s enclosure and David was steaming as I hadn’t done what he’d told me to do. I just said, ‘This horse will win next year’s Hennessy’, and he did. It was astonishing really, and I will always remember that. I will never forget it.
“I remember him running in the Charisma Gold Cup at Kempton first time out. I was virtually off the course and got unseated at the last that day at Kempton.
“Then he was second in a handicap at Cheltenham and I knew he would improve a lot for that run. I was really confident he would win the Hennessy and he did.
“I’ve had three winners in the race as a trainer and two as a jockey. A lot is about luck and being in the right place at the right time, but the Hennessy is a race that has played a big part in my life.”