Denman's New Career
Steve Dennis originally featured in Racing Post on Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Cheltelham is a dozen miles away across the fields, a world away. The big liver chestnut steps carefully down the ramp of his horsebox, walks in tight, excited circles on the grass, pushes his head hard against the hands that are fumbling with his tack.
Denman leads a different life these days. His days of Gold Cup derring-do are imperishable in the memory and the record books but at the age of 13 the rest of his life stretches ahead of him, and he’ll spend it team-chasing. He’s here in this bleak and wind-blasted Cotswolds field for a trial run to see how he takes to it, so Charlotte Alexander lifts herself into the saddle, points him in the right direction and asks him to stride off into the future.
“He is the most charming, gentle horse,” says the vastly experienced Alexander, who had previously turned dual Foxhunter winner Earthmover into a top-class team-chaser.
It was her expertise with Earthmover – who died last year at the age of 21 – that prompted owner Paul Barber and trainer Paul Nicholls to entrust Denman to her care when ‘The Tank’ was retired in December 2011 after sustaining a tendon injury.
Denman’s was a glittering career – Gold Cup hero, runner-up in three Gold Cups, dual winner of the Hennessy and more than £1 million in prize-money – yet there is life after racing and the big horse is relishing it.
He lopes through the gloom behind his lead horse, going no more than quarter-pace, his enormous stride evoking happy memories of Newbury and Cheltenham. The obstacles he faces here are varied and very different to racecourse fences – natural hedges, tyres, post and rail, with tight turns between them – but he shows no sign of inexperience or hesitation, adapting to his new role with a panache that leaves Alexander breathless with pleasure.
“He was brilliant,” she says. “He was careful to begin with but he just loves jumping and galloping.
“For him it’s so easy – he’ll never go at racing pace any more, everything will be effortless for him. He’s going to be very good; when he’s got more experience he’ll be top level.”
Denman left Nicholls’ yard last August after recuperating from his tendon injury, then spent a couple of weeks on a horsewalker to harden up muscles left slightly soggy by six months’ well-earned indolence before arriving at his new home to be gently reinvented.
“He came to me in mid-September and did roadwork for about eight weeks,” says Alexander, 45, former Horse & Hound ‘Thruster of the Week’ (think going down the inside at Becher’s, taking off outside the wings).
“We did a lot of riding across fields, through gates, among sheep and cows, getting him fit slowly and teaching him about walking through nettles and puddles. I was concerned about his leg but it was only a minor injury – if he hadn’t been Denman he’d have carried on racing or gone point-to-pointing, but of course Denman is Denman.
“It was like starting from scratch with a completely inexperienced horse. He was like a young horse, like a four-year-old. Racehorses don’t know about leg aids and he was very ‘behind the leg’, so I had to teach him to go off the leg – that’s when I put my leg on his flank and he goes forward at the command.
“Racehorses have spent their lives just going straight, so I had to teach him bending so he gets more muscles over his ribcage, teach him leg yields so he learns to go sideways off the leg as well as forward, and then it’s all about getting him to take more weight behind, he has to get his hocks underneath him.
“He has to learn to jump in a different style so that he uses his hocks more, rather than going in flat and fast like when he was racing.”
Alexander leads the semi-nocturnal lifestyle familiar to all those with horses and full-time jobs that pay for them: up before dawn to muck out and ride out her three before doing the nine-to-five at insurance brokers Lycetts, every weekend devoted to schooling and competition.
“I loved Earthmover. He was brilliant, he’d just charge in and rattle over his fences – they used to call him Fence Remover,” she recalls with a smile.
“Denman is a much easier ride, is better balanced, has better conformation, but he’s green and cautious, he thinks about things, looks at things, he’s very careful. Earthmover had been properly hunted before he came to me, whereas Denman had never done anything like that.”
That would change. After that reconditioning roadwork, the next step was to introduce Denman to the hunting field with the Duke of Beaufort’s. Alexander draws a deep breath, pulls a face.
“It was the most exciting, terrifying experience of my life,” she says. “He was amazed by everything, his eyes were out on organ stops.
“Of course he reared and rushed off but it was very important that I didn’t let him get away from me, that he learned he couldn’t do that. He went through a sheep fence and broke that, he was pretty wild.
“But I persevered and he got better and better each time, more and more relaxed. Now he queues patiently at gateways – although sometimes if we’re cantering he tends to charge through them – and I just have to make sure I have enough space in front of me when he jumps as he is so quick into his fences. He really loves it.
“And people say ‘is that Denman? When are you bringing Frankel along?’”
Denman’s diet has naturally changed according to his different needs – “He just has conditioning cubes and Alfa-A, this marvellous stuff called Protexin, which is a gut balancer that’s like Yakult for horses, and a little garlic. That’s it, no oats at all, just enough to condition him without blowing his brains” – and aside from a short-lived bout of mud fever owing to something as prosaic as the change from Somerset mud to Gloucestershire mud he has had no problems.
Alexander is quick with praise for both Adrian Maguire and Paul Nicholls for the fine job they did with Denman at various stages of his life, but after that backward glance her focus is on the next step. The team-chasing season has started, so she leads me carefully through the labyrinthine and arcane world of not-racing.
“Team-chasing? Four go round a course against the clock, plenty of twists and turns, hedges, poles, going through water, all sorts of things, and it’s the time of the third one home that counts.
“There’s an event every Sunday, spring and autumn, it stops in mid-April and starts up again in September. Our team is called A&E Lycetts: A Class Act, and it’s me, Sharon Robins, Joe Stevenson and Andrew Shipley.”
Denman will be kept ticking over during the summer – there may be a racecourse parade or two in store, and he’s booked in for hunting with Paul Barber’s local Blackmore Vale hunt next winter – and Alexander will continue to send photographs and regular bulletins of his progress to Barber and Nicholls.
“Paul [Barber] has given him to me on permanent loan,” she says. “I’m such a lucky girl to have such a class horse to ride, it’s beyond any wild dreams.
“Paul told me to have fun with him, to enjoy him, to give him a lovely life. I think he’s enjoying it as much as I am.”
Suddenly Denman lifts up his head, pricks his ears, wears that look of eagles that horses borrow so well. Perhaps he’s caught the faint echo of those cheering crowds of his former life; maybe it’s no more than the wind in the wires. He looks blissfully happy.