Like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Cue Card and Coneygree, two of the heavyweights of National Hunt racing, square up at Haydock Park today ahead of possible Gold Cup glory in March and a lucrative £1 million bonus.
They meet in the Betfair Chase, a race Cue Card has won twice before, as has Silviniaco Conti, another great prize fighter who is among the four additional contenders in the £209,000 three-mile grade one race.
Although Cue Card faded on his seasonal debut at Wetherby at the end of October, Joe Tizzard believes the ten-year-old has emerged better than ever from his endeavours.
“He is ever so well,” said Tizzard, assistant to Colin, his father and Cue Card’s trainer, at their Milborne Port yard on the Somerset-Dorset border. “He came out of the race really strong.
“He absolutely flew the schooling fences on Wednesday morning. He is right back to where he was last year. He just needed the run [at Wetherby]. He was a winner two out. He has been a lot sharper at home. I think you will see the real Cue Card on Saturday.”
The prospect of Cue Card, who fell three out in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March when travelling ominously well, and Coneygree, the 2015 Gold Cup winner who is on the comeback trail after a year’s injury absence, slugging it out is what gives the jumps game its broad appeal.
“It is brilliant for racing,” Tizzard agreed. “Two of the best. Coneygree has been off for a year but he is a cracking horse. But we have never shied away from anything with Cue Card and there is no reason we would start now. We are going the same route as last season.” That means the King George at Kempton, then a renewal at the Festival.
Tizzard and his father have admitted they got their tactics wrong at Wetherby, and today will leave it to Paddy Brennan, the jockey, to read the race as he sees fit, no doubt in the slipstream of the front-running Coneygree, who will now be ridden by Richard Johnson after the withdrawal of his original mount, Menorah, yesterday.
“We said to Paddy to be really positive on him and get him standing off and as the race panned out we possibly made too much use of everything, giving everyone 10lb. He just got tired from the back of the last. He blew quite hard that day.”
Cue Card, owned by Jean Bishop, holds a special place in the Tizzard affections. “He put us on the map,” Tizzard continued. “He’s wonderful. He goes to the races, he walks around the paddock, he grows a hand. He wants the fight. It’s the same with Thistlecrack.
“Cue Card never gets an easy race anymore. He might make it look easy but he is always against the best of the best. He is a tough, tough horse. You can never question his bravery.”
In the bigger picture, the Tizzards could not be in a better position. The sudden addition of 15 horses owned by Alan and Ann Potts has boosted their firepower and increased numbers to 85 at the 500-acre Venn Farm complex.
Tizzard jokes that they have the space to double in size but is serious in the family’s goal, one day, to be champion trainer. “The way it is going is fantastic,” he continued. “Of the horses we were sent by Mr Potts, seven of them are rated above 145, so they are Saturday horses. These are 15 very good horses, our type of horse.
“We could cope with 150 horses, no problem. It is hard work but we want to have a go at being champion trainer one day. As the business has grown and grown, we are pushing it as hard as we can.”
In the back of his mind is the prospect of Cue Card and Thistlecrack, who has taken to fences with aplomb, meeting at both Kempton and Cheltenham. “That’s exciting isn’t it?” he said. “You had the Kauto Star versus Denman thing a few years back.
“If we end up with Cue Card as good as he was last year going into the Gold Cup and we get Thistlecrack there, we will be the ones getting all the hype. People love these good horses. They don’t come along very often.”
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