They arrived on the scene at the same time, but it was Black Jack Ketchum that landed a Cheltenham Festival victory in 2006, whilst Denman tasted defeat for the first time under rules.
Trained by Jonjo O’Neill, BJK was a diminutive son of Oscar out of a Supreme Leader mare. His pedigree suggested he’d make a decent stayer, but this classy racehorse was not short on speed. Having won a couple of bumpers in the summer of 2004, he opened his hurdling campaign with a low-key success at Uttoxeter, before comfortably outclassing a strong looking field at Cheltenham.
Just a few days later at Wincanton, the Paul Nicholls-trained Denman, made it two from two over hurdles, with an emphatic success. This huge and powerful son of Presenting was a completely different beast to Black Jack. O’Neill’s charge was small, neat and nimble and possessed destructive acceleration. Denman was all about prolonged, relentless galloping. Always likely to make a terrific chaser, he had huge presence to match the immense ability.
BJK returned to Prestbury Park in December and cruised to a comfortable victory in the Brit Insurance Novices’ Hurdle over three miles. A few weeks later it was Denman’s turn to travel to the Cotswolds. He took the Grade One Challow Hurdle (rerouted from Newbury) by a yawning 21-lengths, destroying several classy types in the process.
Jump racing fans couldn’t wait for the undefeated pair to meet on a racecourse, and that clash looked set to take place at the unlikely venue of Bangor in February. Denman duly lined up for the three-mile event, but racegoers were disappointed when BJK was confirmed a non-runner on the day. During a media event at his yard a month later, O’Neill admitted that the team had ‘ducked’ a clash with Denman, despite the track and perfect spring ground arguably favouring the diminutive star.
Nevertheless, the clash still looked likely as the pair headed the market for the SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March. A week prior to the event Jonjo said of his unbeaten seven-year-old: “A. P. loves him because he has a lazy style of running and, when he gets hold of him, he really responds. I don’t think he really wants to go three miles, and while we ducked taking on Denman for ten grand at Bangor recently, it looks like we might meet next week.”
Despite the encouraging statement, a thrilling duel between the two outstanding young hurdlers failed to materialise. Denman again made the gig, lining up at the start of the SunAlliance (better known as the Neptune) at 2m5f, whilst Jonjo decided to run Black Jack Ketchum in the three-mile Brit Insurance.
Denman was to suffer a shock defeat, beaten for speed on ground plenty lively enough, by the talented Irish raider Nicanor. There was no such surprise in the three-miler where BJK put in a thrilling performance. Cruising into contention turning for home, he displayed that exhilarating acceleration after the last, scooting clear to win by nine-lengths. In hindsight, Nicholls would have been kicking himself for not running Denman over the longer trip. The sight of the mighty warrior pouring on the pressure, whilst tracked by the silky-smooth Black Jack would have been electrifying.
A career as one of the greatest staying chasers lay ahead for Denman. His demolition of Kauto Star in the Gold Cup of 2008 was arguably the highlight, though the pair of Hennessy victories lumping top-weight were no less extraordinary. He was a colossus.
For the enigmatic Black Jack the future proved less glorious than that memorable day in March 2006. A horrible fall in the Stayers’ Hurdle (then the World Hurdle) a year later may have been the reason for his loss of enthusiasm for the sport. He rarely looked the same animal as the one who had been so destructive as a novice. In April of 2008 the decision was made to retire him. O’Neill said of the pocket-rocket: “He just did not seem to be enjoying it anymore. He was a brilliant servant to the yard and a super little horse who will be very hard to replace.”
I’ve stood on the rails at the Cheltenham Festival for many years now and can say with ‘hand-on-heart’, that the sight of Black Jack scooting up the famous hill in 2006 remains one of my festival highlights. On that day, despite the disappointment of a thrilling duel never materialising, Jonjo’s classy little novice put in a spellbinding performance that will live long in the memory.