The first contest between Cue Card and Thistlecrack – both trained by Colin Tizzard – in Kempton’s King George VI Chase on Boxing Day is the most hotly anticipated jump-racing encounter in seasons, writes Cornelius Lysaght.
With festive rituals unchanged in years, Tizzard insists he and his family will be enjoying the same kind of peaceful Christmas they always do in rural Dorset.
As usual, Tizzard and his wife Pauline, their ex-jockey son Joe and daughter Kim – the assistant trainers – will muck out and feed the 80 horses after lunch, giving the stable’s staff the afternoon off.
And, on Boxing Day night, as is the long-held custom, the extended Tizzard family will gather at Venn Farm for traditional celebrations.
Tizzard said: “We do the horses on Christmas afternoon because after you’ve had a big dinner and you’ve had a sleep for half an hour you just want to get up and have a little walk round, don’t you?
“On Boxing Day night, we always have my mother and brothers and sisters round, and all their children.”
What about last year? “I’d just won the King George – it really was party time.”
Yet, however much the trappings of normality are there in 2016, things are inevitably rather different this time around.
The first contest between the Tizzard team’s biggest names, Cue Card and Thistlecrack, in Kempton’s King George VI Chase is the most hotly anticipated jump-racing encounter in seasons.
In fact, the sport has seen little quite like it since steeplechasing icons Kauto Star and Denman – also under the care of the same trainer, Paul Nicholls – went head to head in three Cheltenham Gold Cups between 2008 and 2010.
Cue Card, the brilliant winner of 12 months ago and long-time people’s champion, against young pretender Thistlecrack, trying to overcome his lack of experience to become the first novice – this is only his fourth steeplechase – to gallop off with the sport’s most important mid-season chasing prize.
Lining up in the three-mile race for the fifth time, with previous form figures of 1-5-2-5, the Jean Bishop-owned Cue Card is fractionally favourite under jockey Paddy Brennan.
A second successive win in Haydock’s Betfair Chase in November means Cue Card is again chasing the £1m ‘Steeplechasing Triple Crown’, which would also include March’s Gold Cup, a race in which the horse dramatically fell late on last season.
Though second in the betting, Thistlecrack, aged eight and to be ridden by Tom Scudamore in the orange and black silks of John and Heather Snook, oozes X-factor quality.
Already the Gold Cup favourite, he has barely put a foot wrong since his move from hurdles champion to the bigger obstacles, hence the decision to go for Kempton’s feature rather than the same day’s prestigious Kauto Star Novices’ Chase.
Most who follow horse racing closely are reckoned to hold a view on who will come out on top, though Tizzard seems genuinely unsure – and determined not to favour one over the other.
“I’ll probably be trying to work out what first and second prize money is actually, that’s the way I think,” he told BBC Sport.
“I was talking to Jean Bishop about it – having two beautiful horses like that taking each other on. In an ideal world you probably wouldn’t, but these are championship races. You’re not doing it every week.
“I won’t feel sorry for Cue Card if Thistlecrack beats him, or the other way round.
“Cue Card’s been a fantastic horse for six or seven seasons, and Thistlecrack’s been a damn good horse for us. I don’t really have favourites – I like them all.”
A King George field of just five is made up by the Nicky Henderson-trained Josses Hill; two-time winner Silviniaco Conti, who is looking to be Paul Nicholls’ 10th victory in the race; and Tea For Two, successful in a Grade One novices’ chase on the Kempton card last Christmas, on whom Lizzie Kelly becomes the first female jockey to take part in the race.
The vibes about his star pair from Tizzard, who’s third in the trainers’ prize money-judged table after a string of good results in valuable prizes, are all positive.
“We changed Cue Card’s work-partner [on the gallops] and we got our fastest young horse out, who’s been beating everything, and Cue Card beat him by three lengths,” he added.
“He’s beautiful and looks bigger and stronger – it doesn’t mean he’s going to win the King George, but he’s in good form and will have come on from Haydock.
“Thistlecrack at home hasn’t got the beauty galloping that Cue Card has got. He looks fine and it’s not until you get to the races that he sort of comes up three inches and looks an absolute machine.
“There’s no doubt about it, he’s brilliant, he can gallop with anything, his jumping is pretty steady now, and he could easily go and win the King George, who knows?”
It is intriguing and compelling in equal measure; a Christmas gift of a horse race.
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