Tizzard Strikes Gold at thrilling Cheltenham Festival

There were many outstanding performances during last week’s Cheltenham Festival, though there’s no doubting testing conditions proved a gamechanger for some.

Summerville Boy and Kalashnikov had fought through the mud in the Tolworth Hurdle back in January and were well suited by the heavy ground encountered in the Festival opener. As at Sandown, it was Tom George’s six-year-old that came off best, though he needed every yard to get his head in front. A haphazard jumping display almost cost him, but he stayed on powerfully up the famous hill to deny Kalashnikov by a neck.

Mengli Khan travelled powerfully and on better ground may well have finished ahead of the front two. There’s plenty more to come from Gordon Elliott’s youngster, and he may be the one to take out of the race. Getabird was a major disappointment, having pulled his way to the front he travelled far too keenly and faded out of contention after the second-last. He’s not been the easiest to train, and I’m convinced that he’s far better than he showed here. It would come as no surprise should he bounce back to form at Punchestown in April, where he’ll likely clash again with Mengli Khan.

Ground conditions were also ideal for Footpad as he romped to victory in the Arkle Chase. His task was made far easier by a rare poor riding performance from Davy Russell aboard Petit Mouchoir and an inspired one from Ruby Walsh. De Bromhead’s chaser had little chance of seeing out the trip having set-off like an equine Usain Bolt, whilst the Mullins-trained favourite was ridden with restraint and delivered with a perfectly timed challenge. This isn’t to say that Footpad was a lucky winner. He’s a class act and looks capable of mixing-it with all bar Altior at the minimum trip. Though I’d be surprised if Mullins didn’t move him up in distance next season. He looks a natural successor to Un De Sceaux.

Buveur D’Air clung on to his crown and fought off Melon to win the Champion Hurdle. Conditions wouldn’t have favoured the favourite. Slick jumping at pace has proved his forte, along with a potent finishing kick. On this occasion he was forced into a slug-fest with a Mullins youngster who clearly has more to offer than many had anticipated. Melon is no mug, though I fancy on better ground the Champ would have too many gears for the youngster. It’s hard to assess how the pair will match-up in a year’s time. There’s the possibility of further progress from the Closutton inmate, though the team may also consider sending him over fences. He has the size and scope to make a chaser and could easily become an Arkle contender.

Another that could be heading for next season’s Arkle Chase is the wonderfully talented Samcro. Second-guessing future targets for this fella won’t be easy. Seemingly blessed with the speed that would make him a realistic Champion Hurdle contender, connections seemingly insist that his future lies as a staying chaser. There’s certainly plenty of stamina on the dam’s side, though his sire, Germany, was responsible for the mighty Faugheen.

Samcro proved far too quick for the opposition in the Ballymore. Having powered through the race, he swept past the field turning for home, with only Black Op capable of putting up any sort of resistance. The Tom George-trained seven-year-old managed to get within three-lengths at the finish, though never looked like landing a serious blow. The runner-up looks a cracking prospect and should improve plenty for fences. Next Destination was badly outpaced coming downhill towards the second-last, yet flew up the hill to finish third. He’s likely to be sent chasing and looks an RSA type.

4 weeks' free access to Geegeez Gold

Presenting Percy was next to impress, though I’ll reserve judgment as to his potential as a serious player in next year’s Gold Cup. Monalee finished second though looked a non-stayer. Al Boum Photo came down at the second-last when looking to lay down a challenge, though I doubt he’d have got to the winner. Nevertheless, Presenting Percy has now to step into the ring against top-level experienced chasers. Our Duke’s performance later in the week illustrated the unique demands of a high-class Gold Cup. Presenting P has been installed as a 6/1 joint-favourite for next year’s ‘blue riband’ and I fancy that’s a slight over-reaction to his RSA romp. Native River remains available at 8s.

Wednesday’s Champion Chase finally delivered the Douvan/Altior clash that so many Jump racing fans had been waiting for. Mullins also threw Min into the mix, attempting to wrestle the prize away from Nicky Henderson’s stable star. For much of the race Douvan looked back to his sublime best, jumping like a stag at the head of affairs. But just as we started to get excited he guessed at the fourth-last and was down.

Altior was struggling in the testing ground and turning for home looked in trouble, with Min travelling much the stronger. But rarely has a horse surged up the famous hill like Altior. He put seven-lengths between himself and the runner-up in a simply astounding finishing burst. Min wasn’t stopping, but the winner is a freak. That he should arrive on the scene so soon after the glorious Sprinter Sacre must be a dream come true for Nicky Henderson.

Gordon Elliott had a sensational Festival, as did owner’s Gigginstown House Stud. Day three proved a cracker for both, with a talented mare, Shattered Love, landing the opening JLT Novices’ Chase. She’s regally bred, being by Yeats out of a Bustino mare, yet has the perfect physique for this game. She’s a huge beast, and powered clear up the final hill, despite taking a chunk of the final fence with her. Now five from six over the larger obstacles, she did fiddle a few, but given this type of testing ground is clearly hugely talented.

Gigginstown supremo, Michael O’Leary, then landed his own race, the Ryanair Chase. Balko Des Flos travelled supremely well throughout and proved far too hot to handle. The seven-year-old drew clear of last year’s winner, Un De Sceaux, to win by a little over four-lengths. There’d been concerns over the suitability of the ground, but in the event, he simply cruised his way through the mud. This was a power-packed performance from a horse on a steep upward curve.

Many had hoped for a similar display from Sam Spinner in the Stayers’ Hurdle, but a pedestrian pace played to those with a finishing kick and it was Penhill that found more than Supasundae. The winner is without doubt a talented horse, but this was a disappointing race for those that had hoped for a pulsating battle.

Elliott and Gigginstown were at it again at the start of day four, when Farclas landed the Triumph Hurdle. He toughed it out to beat fellow Irish raider Mr Adjudicator. Apple’s Shakira ran well but was probably undone by the testing conditions. Stormy Ireland was another that ran with huge credit, before tiring and coming down at the last. She could take some catching on better ground.

Colin Tizzard’s Kilbricken Storm caused an upset to win the Albert Bartlett, though the lightly raced Santini looks the horse to take out of the race. Henderson’s six-year-old should make a terrific chaser next season.

It became a day to remember for Tizzard and his team, when Native River pulled out all the stops to defeat Might Bite in the Gold Cup. The pair proved a class apart as they duelled throughout the race. Turning for home, Henderson’s King George winner appeared to be travelling the better. But it was Richard Johnson who managed to get a little extra from the gutsy Native River up the final climb to the finish. The runner-up lost little in defeat and, on a better surface, may well have come out on top. Nevertheless, this was Tizzard’s day, and in Johnson and Native River he’s uncovered a match made in heaven.

In a Festival where Mullins and Elliott proved dominant, the Brits turned to Henderson and Tizzard for a small piece of solace. There were grounds for concern throughout, but once again Cheltenham delivered.

Our Duke has The Power for Gold Cup Glory

News came last night that Sizing John would not be defending his Gold Cup crown.

As the bombshell dropped, I was in the process of writing how surprisingly rare it is that horses complete back-to-back victories in the ‘Blue Riband’. Keeping these equine stars fit and well is an incredibly difficult task. Getting them on the racecourse year-in year-out is hard enough, but training the equine elite to maintain such a high level of performance is quite something else. Along with Sizing John, the likes of Faugheen, Douvan and Thistlecrack are just a few names that instantly spring to mind.

Though Harrington will clearly be gutted at the untimely injury to her Gold Cup hero, it does mean that jockey Robbie Power will now be reunited with stable companion Our Duke. The partnership landed the Irish National back in April but occasional jumping errors since his return from a back operation have been a source of concern for those siding with the giant chaser, as he heads for his greatest challenge to date at Prestbury Park. Power is surely best placed to get the most from Our Duke, and that may well prove to be enough for a horse that looks tailor-made for the job that lies ahead.

Might Bite heads the market following success in the RSA last year and a somewhat underwhelming victory in the King George. Turning for home at Kempton, the eight-year-old pulled clear of the pack and looked sure to romp to an impressive winning performance. But at the line he had just a length to spare over Double Shuffle with a further two back to Tea For Three. Henderson’s talented chaser may well win the Gold Cup next week, but his inability to focus throughout the race, from the fall of the flag to the finish, may yet prove his downfall. Better horses than Whisper, Double Shuffle and Tea For Three will be waiting to pounce, should he take his eye of the prize.

Native River will ensure that the contenders stamina is fully tested. Richard Johnson will set the fractions, firing the gutsy eight-year-old at every fence as he attempts to mirror a Coneygree style performance. Tizzard’s contender has had this race as his sole target this season, and as such, will arrive a fresh horse. He ran a cracker in finishing third a year ago, when arguably not ridden aggressively enough. Sizing John had the gears, and enough left in the tank to use them. It will be down to Johnson to ensure that the sting is drawn from the chasing pack, in much the same way as Sam Spinner in Thursday’s Stayers’ Hurdle. He looks sure to go close.

4 weeks' free access to Geegeez Gold

Road To Respect won the Brown Advisory Handicap at last year’s Festival, and has continued on a steep upward curve throughout this campaign. He took the Leopardstown Christmas Chase (formerly the Lexus) defeating Balko Des Flos and Outlander, though several leading contenders underperformed that day. Off the track since, the lack of a prep-run is a slight concern. He’s a second-season chaser, clearly on the upgrade, and therefore ticks plenty of boxes for trend followers. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that he’s ‘the one’ and am far from certain that he’s robust enough for this extended trip with that infamous concluding climb.

The joker in the pack is the Willie Mullins-trained Killultagh Vic. He looked likely to win the Irish Gold Cup when falling at the last. Such jumping errors must be a huge concern for a horse with so little chasing experience. Despite being a nine-year-old, he’s only had three races over fences. It’s testament to how highly he’s regarded that he’s fourth favourite at 10/1, and he does have a Festival success to his name, having won the Martin Pipe Hurdle back in 2015. Three years have passed, and in that period, he’s only been on the racecourse five times. If he wins we will all marvel at the training prowess of Willie Mullins coupled with the incredible talent of the horse. However, trend followers will say that he can’t win, and I’m prepared to go with them.

One that will outrun his odds is Minella Rocco. Runner-up last year and winner of the four-miler in 2016, this fella thrives at Cheltenham in March. He’ll likely be outpaced at some stage prior to charging up the hill when others cry enough. As Native River’s tank starts to read empty and Might Bite drifts across the track to inspect the Guinness Village, Jonjo’s fella will be making his move. I’m sure he’ll go close.

Gold Cup winners rarely stagger over the finishing line, rather, they charge up the hill devouring the Cheltenham turf, out-staying and over-powering their opponents. In the absence of Sizing John, I’m convinced that Our Duke has what it takes to complete back-to-back victories for Jess Harrington. At 25s, the each-way money will be lumped on Minella Rocco.

Expect the unexpected in this ‘anything could happen’ renewal. Best of luck to those having a punt.

Altior and Native River back at Newbury

If the weather forecast is correct (improbable I know) we’ll finally get to see Altior back on the racecourse on Saturday.

In his absence, Politologue has ruled the roost, winning the Haldon Gold Cup, the Tingle Creek and the Desert Orchid Chase. He defeated Fox Norton at Sandown, though only just. The pair are set to clash again and it’s possible they’ll give a ring-rusty Altior a run for his money.

Politologue’s owner, John Hales, is certainly excited at the prospect of meeting the best two-mile chaser in the business. He told Press Association Sport: “He's (Politologue) been electric this year and I'm looking forward to it. It's nice to see Altior is going to run. It will be a good contest and that's what it's all about. When he's stood up, he's unbeaten over two miles. It took us some time to realise that was his trip but since we have, there's been no looking back.

“The only time he's lost over two (miles) over fences was at Aintree, when he'd have probably won anyway. His jumping is his biggest asset. He's very quick and very accurate. I call him a coat-of-paint job, because he leaves no gap between himself and the fence - there's no air. That's a trait of all the best two-milers, looking back at them.”

4 weeks' free access to Geegeez Gold

Hales is one of the great enthusiasts and deserves to own a high-class racehorse. Nevertheless, Altior has looked a breed apart and if back to near his best will surely prove too hot to handle. Speaking earlier in the week, a typically cautious Nicky Henderson said of his star chaser: “He's going to get beaten one day, probably. I think you've got to look at it that way. I'd like to get a race into him and if he gets beaten, he gets beaten. I suppose that this is the time that he's going to be at his most vulnerable, but in the interests of him trying to win the Champion Chase I think it's good for him to have a run.”

It’s certain to be another emotional day for the racing fraternity, with Cloudy Dream contesting the Denman Chase. Formerly trained by Malcolm Jefferson, the stable is now in the hands of daughter Ruth following the recent death of her father. And the eight-year-old has a great chance of landing the prestigious race, especially as favourite, Native River, will be returning from an 11-month lay-off.

Tizzard’s classy chaser will use this as a prep for the Gold Cup in March. His owner, Garth Broom, said of his return: “He's as ready as you can get him at home without having a race. All the reports are that Colin [Tizzard] and his team are very happy with him. In the past he's always wanted one race as a warm-up and this is what the idea is. If he got beat, as long as he ran a good race, it wouldn't be a complete disaster. It's the means to an end to get him to the Gold Cup.”

Broom added: “What happened last year was we were running him in the big races to see if he was a Gold Cup horse. Now we know he is, we didn't have to go through that process. The form of the stable dipped slightly at Cheltenham last year and he was beaten only two and three-quarter lengths and nutted on the line by Minella Rocco, his old foe. He loves Newbury. He's run in three chases there, the Hennessy and Denman last season and a novice the season before, and he's never been beaten there over fences, I'm hoping it will continue.”

Another talented horse on the comeback trail is Barters Hill. Trained by Ben Pauling, the eight-year-old has been off the track for more than a year after sustaining an injury on his chasing debut at Cheltenham. Back over hurdles this weekend, connections will be hoping for a trouble-free round before making plans for the remainder of the campaign. “It's very much the plan to go on Saturday at Newbury,” said Pauling. “He's in good order and it will be great to have him back out.”

Cobden call-up on Cue Card

Cue Card, Coneygree and Our Duke hit the headlines at the weekend, for all the wrong reasons.

And yesterday it was dear old Cue Card that again made the news, as the Tizzard team decided a change of jockey is required in the hope of resurrecting the chaser’s winning ways. Having hit the deck twice in his last three starts, Paddy Brennan has been asked to step-aside, and it will be young Harry Cobden that takes the reins in the Betfair Chase at Haydock.

The 19-year-old has impressed in his short time in the saddle, and has been riding regularly for both Paul Nicholls and Colin Tizzard. This is a huge opportunity for the young man, and he is clearly thrilled to be given the chance. Speaking yesterday he said: “I schooled him this morning and he felt A1. I'm very much looking forward to riding him. It is a great opportunity for a young jockey to pick up a ride like that and the target is the Betfair Chase. I ride out for Colin every Wednesday and I know all the horses well. I've not really got any commitments in Graded races, so it will be nice riding a horse like that as these opportunities don't come around too often.”

There’s no doubting it’s tough on Paddy Brennan. He’s had some fabulous times on Cue Card, most notably the thrilling King George success of 2015, when getting up in the final strides to defeat the wonderful Vautour. Brennan will still ride for the Tizzard’s, but this will still be a blow for the jock.

Colin Tizzard spoke of the decision yesterday afternoon: “I spoke to Paddy on Monday and said I thought the horse deserved to have a change of rider as he has fallen twice out of the last three times. He said it was fair enough. It's not a big issue changing jockey as we do it all the time, but it might be on Cue Card because of his profile. It is a different set of hands on board, so we will see what happens.”

4 weeks' free access to Geegeez Gold

The trainer added: “Harry might be available for two or three races, whereas a lot of the top jockeys are already on the best horses. I like the idea of having a younger man on him. I've known Harry all my life and he has got plenty of experience. He has ridden a lot of winners for us and he is a good young rider. I consulted Jean (Bishop, Cue Card's owner) about it and she is a very loyal person, but she thought the horse deserved a new rider. He (Cobden) will be scrutinised, no doubt, but getting on Cue Card when you are 19 years old, he should be chuffed.”

With Tizzard’s older statesman looking to land his fourth Betfair Chase at Haydock, the yard’s younger star was among 26 entries for the King George at Christmas. Thistlecrack won Kempton’s Christmas cracker last December, and is on course to attempt a repeat performance.

Speaking on the Jockey Club's Love The Jumps podcast a week ago, the Dorset trainer said: “We had him in first week in August, we're now nearly in November and we're just starting to go a bit faster with him. He's got a month of fast work and he'll be ready to run. He'll have a hurdle before we go in the King George because we can't really go there first time up. I feel his legs once a week now and someone else feels them every other day and they seem absolutely fine.”

Earlier this week Tizzard confirmed that the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury would act as Thistlecrack’s King George warm-up run. He took the race in 2015, and it would leave a gap of almost four weeks before that huge event at Kempton.

Tizzard also spoke of last year’s Gold Cup third, Native River. The seven-year-old is set for a light campaign, with another crack at Cheltenham’s Gold Cup the prime objective. He’ll not be seen until the new year, with connections keen to have him spot-on for the big day.

Might Bite, Sizing John, Douvan and Djakadam were other eye-catching entries for what may well prove to be a stellar renewal of the King George. Nicky Henderson’s Might Bite looks likely to head to Sandown for his seasonal debut on Sunday. The three-mile 188Bet Future Stars Intermediate Chase appears the ideal starting point, giving the young chaser vital practice before taking on the ‘big guns’ over Christmas. The opportunity of having another run on a right-handed track would also have been on Henderson’s mind when choosing this as a pipe-opener.

Sizing John has the million-pound bonus on his agenda for this campaign. He’ll head for the Betfair Chase before a crack at the King George. The cheque will be handed over should he win both and then repeat his Gold Cup success at Cheltenham. Sounds easy enough.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup – Trust in Tizzard’s Rampant River

Battered and bruised as stars of past and present fell by the wayside, nevertheless, the Gold Cup remains the most prestigious event of the Cheltenham Festival, and there’s every chance we could still be treated to an absolute thriller.

Willie Mullins continues his quest for a first victory, and surely has a great chance with twice runner-up Djakadam. And Colin Tizzard, despite the loss of budding superstar Thistlecrack, has a ready-made replacement in Native River, along with one of the most popular horses in training searching for redemption in Cue Card.

The trio are vying for top spot in the betting, and if recent trends are anything to go by, they’ll be battling out the finish. Fancied runners have won nine of the last 10, with only Lord Windermere bucking the trend when winning at 20s in 2014. Five favourites have been successful in that time, including last year’s winner Don Cossack, who was chased home by a pair of 9/2 shots in Djakadam and Don Poli. Cue Card had been sent-off the 5/2 second favourite, and would surely have been in the mix, but for his third-last blunder.

Don number one, took a tumble in the King George prior to Cheltenham glory, and Kempton’s Christmas Cracker has proved to be a decent pointer for the ‘big one’ in March. Many of the best staying chasers take in this valuable and prestigious event, and it’s therefore no surprise that Gold Cup winners have lined-up here. However, the two courses provide very different tests for a racehorse, and Cue Card fans should not be too despondent that he was swept aside so easily by stable companion Thistlecrack in December’s renewal.

The Hennessy Gold Cup and Denman Chase have also been stop-off points for future Gold Cup winners in recent years. Native River captured both, along with the Welsh National for good measure. The win at Chepstow proved his versatility with regards to track. Tizzard himself had hinted that the horse was better suited to a flat course, but the win in Wales was arguably his most impressive performance to date.

Ireland’s Lexus Chase has been slightly less influential as a Gold Cup guide, though Denman and Synchronised both won en route to Cheltenham glory. Lord Windermere had finished down the field prior to his shock win at Prestbury Park. Djakadam was somewhat disappointing in finishing third behind Outlander and Don Poli in the Leopardstown showpiece this time, but Mullins appears happy with the progress his chaser has made since that run.

Of the leading three contenders, you’d have to say that Native River has been the most impressive throughout the winter. He looks be improving at a rate of knots, though it’s somewhat surprising to see that Kauto Star was the last seven-year-old to win the Gold Cup, back in 2007. Long Run was only six when winning in 2011, but in recent times eight and nine-year-olds have proved dominant. A plus maybe for eight-year-old Djakadam.

4 weeks' free access to Geegeez Gold

What A Myth was the last horse over the age of 10 to capture Cheltenham’s showpiece, which is bad news for Cue Card fans.

Away from the leading trio, the markets have Sizing John next best. He stepped from the shadows of Douvan to win the Kinloch Brae Chase, and improved again when winning the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. He’s an impressive looking beast, who looks sure to jump and travel beautifully for much of the race at Cheltenham. The question is whether he will last out the trip, in what is likely to be a strongly run affair. He wasn’t stopping at Leopardstown last time, though the field hardly hot-footed it around the track.

If Sizing John has stamina doubts, then the same can probably be said of Lexus winner Outlander. Visually at least, he looked to be powering away from his rivals at the finish over Christmas, though trainer Gordon Elliott has recently sounded less confident that the 3m2f trip will prove ideal. Now a nine-year-old, the horse looks to be Elliott’s best hope of landing back-to-back victories. His course form fails to fill you with confidence, though the same could have been said of Don Cossack prior to last year’s romp.

Henry De Bromhead’s Champagne West comes next in the betting. He appears to have improved immensely since his move to Ireland, though I’d be stunned if he’s good enough to win this. His jumping can be patchy at best, and he’s likely to be pressured into errors from the onset. Soft ground will help his cause, though not enough.

Bristol De Mai is another that will need heavy ground to have any chance. He seems to cruise through the mud whilst others flounder, but he’s another that probably comes-up just short at this level. He could run into a place, if conditions become severely testing.

Of the remainder, only Minella Rocco appears to hold any hope of an upset. He has that vital Festival form, having won the four-miler last year, beating Native River into second place. That however, has been his only success over fences, and he’s spent most of this campaign on the floor. There’s no doubting he’s a talented one, and at 25/1 he’s probably worth a small each-way flutter.

I’ve watched that four-miler on numerous occasions over recent months, and it has continually put doubts in my mind as to whether Native River can win the Gold Cup. He was horribly outpaced coming down the hill 12 months ago, before then storming up the famous final climb. I worry that the same may happen again, especially with several pacey types in opposition. Many say he has the look of Denman about him, but for me it’s Synchronised that he best resembles.

Nevertheless, Native River has done no wrong this winter, and because of that, he has my vote. I’ll also have a few quid on Outlander, as the more I watch his Lexus victory, the more I’m impressed. Let’s hope it’s a cracker, and the best of luck to all those having a punt.

Lions to Roar in Haydock Trial

The Grand National weights were announced earlier in the week, and tomorrow Haydock host a Grade 3 trial over a gruelling trip of three and a half miles.

Run since 1947, with a short break in the 80s, the race tends to attract quality stayers, though doesn’t necessarily prove the best guide to the main event at Aintree. Moreover, the prevalent testing conditions tend to attract horses more suited to the Welsh National, held in mid-winter at an often, boggy Chepstow.

Nevertheless, several have run here after, or prior to, an assault on Aintree, with Neptune Collonges the most recent. He failed by a neck to take the trial in 2012, before winning a thrilling Grand National by the smallest of margins just a couple of months later. Mon Mome finished down the field here in 2009, before his incredible 100/1 shock victory in the ‘greatest steeplechase’.

In 1993 Party Politics captured the trial, though he somewhat put the cart before the horse, having won the Grand National the year before. And the greatest of them all, Red Rum, won the Haydock event in 1975, smack in the middle of his incredible period of Aintree success.

Other notable winners include Young Kenny, who went on to win the Midlands National and then the Scottish National, with all three victories coming in a two-month period. Master Oats captured this as an eight-year-old, before going on to win the Welsh National and then the Cheltenham Gold Cup. And Cool Ground landed the same trio between 1990 and 1992.

That’s something of a snapshot of the history of the event, but serves to show the quality that is often required to be victorious here. And Saturday’s renewal looks a particularly strong affair, with several progressive types taking to the start.

There’s likely to be 14 runners, with last year’s RSA winner, Blaklion, heading the weights. He’s yet to enter the winners’ enclosure this winter, though this severe stamina test looks sure to suit. His run in the Hennessy looks a particularly strong piece of form, thanks in the main to the subsequent exploits of Native River. Rumour has it, that the ground may be no worse than good to soft on Saturday. That should be fine for the Twiston-Davies contender, though more rain wouldn’t harm his chances.

4 weeks' free access to Geegeez Gold

A pair of top-weights have won the race in the past 10 years. In all, five of the last 10 winners have carried 11 stone or more. Sue Smith’s Wakanda is next in the weights, and looked to be back to form when second to Definitly Red at Wetherby last time. That was a terrific performance, but my gut feeling is that this marathon test may stretch his stamina. He’s a very ‘forward going’ type, and I can see him wilting late on. I could be wrong, and 16s does look a generous price.

Vicente will certainly appreciate the trip, having won the Scottish National last April. He also ran well in last year’s National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham, but has proved disappointing so far this winter. He appears to need better ground to be at his best, though having got it last time at Doncaster, still ran like a drain. He’s a tough one to trust, though it would come as no surprise were he to run a huge race.

Vieux Lion Rouge looks sure to go well. He won the Becher Chase in December, and has a course victory to his name. He ran well for a long way in the Grand National last April when only a seven-year-old, and this trip should prove ideal. I’d be surprised if he didn’t go close.

Along with Wakanda, Sue Smith saddles Vintage Clouds, ridden by the prolific Brian Hughes. Seven-year-olds don’t have the best of records, but this fella was running a cracker last time when coming down at the third from home in the Peter Marsh. He’ll probably need more rain if he is to have a realistic chance, but he’s on an attractive handicap mark, and could go well.

Kerry Lee took the race last year, when Bishops Road coped with demanding conditions better than the rest. Goodtoknow takes his chance this year, though the progressive nine-year-old has been particularly busy of late. He was runner-up in the Betfred Classic at Warwick a month ago, and just a couple of weeks back won a handicap chase in heavy ground at Hereford. The Grand National in April is the target, and this may come a little soon after recent exertions.

Eight and nine-year-olds have the strongest record in recent times, and it’s several eight-year-olds that I expect to be battling out the finish tomorrow. Though I fear Vicente, especially if the ground runs no worse than good to soft, his poor run of form puts me off. His odds of 20/1 are extremely attractive, but this race tends to go to those showing strong recent form, and so I nervously ignore Nicholls’ contender.

Much the same can be said for Wakanda, though his run at Wetherby last time shows that he is at least returning to form. His odds of 16s make him an each-way proposition, and he’s another that I tentatively bypass.

I’m more than hopeful that it’s a pair of lions that will be scrapping over the valuable prize. I take Blaklion to get the better of Vieux Lion Rouge, and the pair to then contract considerably in the Grand National market. Both are currently available at 25s for the ‘big one’ at Aintree in April. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

River Romp for Newbury Native

Native River proved far too classy for his rivals in the Denman Chase, and heads to Cheltenham as a leading contender for the Gold Cup. Regular pilot Richard Johnson, was struck down with the flu, but ‘supersub’ Aidan Coleman followed the pre-race plan to perfection, and Tizzard’s young chaser controlled the race from start to finish.

In both the Hennessy and the Welsh National, Native River was ‘hanging-on’ a little at the finish, hence a slightly more conservative approach was tested, with Coleman stepping on the gas later in the race. Native River responded stylishly, scooting clear of Le Mercurey, and the slightly disappointing Bristol De Mai.

Colin Tizzard said of the winner: “I only think he (Coleman) asked him coming down to the second last. He just nursed him along. It showed he was a bit classier. In his last two races, he went a few lengths clear four out and just held on. We wanted to ride him a little differently and have that finishing spurt at the end and it's worked brilliantly. He's gone away at the line.”

Bristol De Mai was ridden patiently by Daryl Jacob, but the tactic appeared to backfire when he was unable to match the finishing kick of the winner. He’s likely to be made more use of when getting to Cheltenham, which in-turn may well help his jumping. It’s possible of-course, that he is simply not quite good enough when up against elite stayers. Nigel Twiston-Davies wasn’t giving up hope, when saying: “He was never at the races. We've got five weeks to get him ready for the Gold Cup and, all being well, that will be long enough to get him back shining.”

The trainer’s day improved considerably, with Ballyandy landing the valuable Betfair Hurdle in a thrilling finish. The race turned into a head-to-head with Movewiththetimes, and as the pair pulled clear heading for the last both jockeys waited for the moment to strike. And it was Sam Twiston-Davies that came off best, as his partner had a little more zip than Barry Geraghty’s.

4 weeks' free access to Geegeez Gold

“He's been unlucky and hasn't won any of the races we thought he would. What a consolation!” said the winning trainer. “He'll go to Cheltenham now. He's in the Supreme and the Neptune Novices' Hurdle and we'll see how both races are panning out. I don't think he'll have any problem with the trip of the Neptune, so we've got that option if we want it.”

The winning jockey praised his willing equine partner: “I had a smooth passage. He didn't jump as well as I might have liked down the back, but in the straight he came alive. I got there sooner than I would have liked, but with his cruising speed it just happened and he has a good turn of foot.”

It’s impossible to review Newbury without mentioning Nicky Henderson’s latest star, Altior. He took on more experienced chasers in the Game Spirit, and duly demolished them. Allowed to stride-out in front by Nico De Boinville, the young chaser was scintillating at his fences, and powered clear down the home straight. The finishing time was impressive, and it’s hard to imagine anything getting close when he heads for the Arkle at Cheltenham. Fox Norton ran with great credit on his return from injury, and may be the one to give Douvan a race in the Champion Chase next month.

Yesterday at Leopardstown, Sizing John stepped out from the shadows of Douvan, to capture the Irish Gold Cup. Up in trip, he travelled like a dream and stayed on powerfully to stave off a pair of Gigginstown chasers, and probably book his place in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. “He was brilliant,” said a thrilled Jess Harrington.

“It's fantastic to have a horse like that for Alan and Ann (Potts, the owners), who has finished so close to Douvan on many occasions. That was his first time over three miles and he jumped, travelled and did everything we had hoped he would. Once he went past two and a half miles we knew he was into unknown territory, but we fully expected he would stay three miles and he did.

“I'd say we'll be going for the Gold Cup. I don't know, as I haven't spoken to Alan and Ann yet,” Harrington added.

The likely clash with Tizzard’s trio will no doubt prove an interesting and probably amusing talking point, for connections and trainers as the ‘big day’ approaches, with the Potts’ now such high-profile patrons at the Dorset stable.

Festival Markets In Motion

There’s likely to be a fair amount of movement in the Gold Cup and Ryanair markets over the weekend, with top-class action on either side of the Irish Sea.

At Newbury on Saturday we have the Grade 2 Denman Chase. Run at a shade under three miles, the race was established in 2000 and won by the Paul Nicholls trained See More Business. He was then a 10-year-old and had already captured the Gold Cup and the King George (twice). Nicholls has a fabulous record in the event, having won half of the 16 contested.

His winners in 2006 and 2007 are modern day greats of the sport, in Denman and Kauto Star. Both went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup a month after victory here. Kauto was of course famed for his incredible record in the King George, whilst Denman became a Newbury hero, winning the Hennessy Gold Cup in 2007 and 2009.

A theme of Gold Cup and King George winners capturing this event has carried on in recent years, with Long Run, Silviniaco Conti and Coneygree adding their names to a stunning roll of honour.

A small field is likely to assemble for Saturday’s renewal, with a clash of rising stars eagerly anticipated. Native River certainly enjoyed his last visit to the track, when winning the Hennessy in November. He also won a novice chase over course and distance in 2016, and is currently second-favourite for the Gold Cup in March.

Richard Johnson has partnered the seven-year-old during this successful period, and his aggressive riding style has proved ideal on a horse that finds plenty for pressure. Earlier in the week, the champion jockey said: “What he’s done this year in the Hennessy and Welsh National has been fantastic - he’s been a really dour stayer but a class act at same time. Hopefully, it’s a stepping stone to the Gold Cup.”

4 weeks' free access to Geegeez Gold

The main threat on Saturday appears to be the recent Peter Marsh winner Bristol De Mai. That devastating success at Haydock prompted Twiston-Davies to target the Gold Cup, and he will hope to build on that stunning display at Newbury. Testing ground brings out the best in the six-year-old, and he is likely to have his optimum conditions this weekend.

Daryl Jacob believes that Saturday’s race will show whether the talented grey is truly Gold Cup calibre. Speaking to Racing UK, the jockey said of his mount: “We’ve been quietly excited by this horse for a long time now and I think Saturday will tell us exactly where we are with him. He was a very, very good at Haydock. I went into the race quite confident he could put up that performance. He beat some really good handicappers and you’ve seen what Otago Trail has since done at Sandown.”

Speaking of the main challenger, Jacob said: “It’s a tough order against Native River; what he’s done so far this year has been exceptional. I thought his performance in the Welsh National was top drawer - going out there with top weight and basically grinding them into submission. For him to go out there and do it the way he did makes him one of the main dangers in the Gold Cup. If we are going to be a live contender we’ve got to be getting close to him.”

Paul Nicholls will hope that he can add to his incredible haul, with the French-bred seven-year-old Le Mercurey. He’s always looked a horse capable of a huge performance, though so far over fences has fallen just short of the best in the division. He chased home Many Clouds at Aintree back in December, and cannot be discounted, though the market leaders certainly appear a cut-above.

There’s four Grade 1s at Leopardstown on Sunday, with the Irish Gold Cup Chase the feature. A prestigious event in its own right, the race is often used by those testing Gold Cup credentials. Jodami and Imperial Call won this before heading to victory at Prestbury Park. Florida Pearl and Beef Or Salmon were prolific winners of the Leopardstown feature, but both failed in attempts to capture the main prize at Cheltenham. The latter came fourth to Best Mate in 2004, whilst Florida Pearl came closer when runner-up to Looks Like Trouble in 2000.

Carlingford Lough has won the last two renewals, but has proved disappointing at Cheltenham. He’s back to defend his crown, though is likely to face stiff opposition from several less exposed types. Don Poli looked rejuvenated when second in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, and Gordon Elliott will be hoping for more of the same. Third in last year’s Gold Cup at Cheltenham, the target appears to be the Grand National, though a strong run here would likely see him head to the Cotswolds in March.

Minella Rocco and Sizing John are two progressive types, and could yet become serious Cheltenham Festival contenders. This race has been the target for Minella Rocco for some time, and it is hoped that it will prove a springboard towards a tilt at the Gold Cup in March. Last week, Frank Berry, the racing manager to owner JP McManus, said of Jonjo’s chaser: “The Gold Cup is wide open but it's still a hard race. He's going to Leopardstown and we'll learn a lot more from that. That'll be a big day for him. If he puts up a good performance, it'll make it easier to decide if he goes for the Gold Cup or the National.”

Sizing John looked likely to head for the Ryanair at Cheltenham, but plans are fluid, and Jess Harrington is taking a leap into the unknown with her young chaser. He certainly wasn’t stopping when winning the Kinloch Brae last time at two and a half miles. A race Don Cossack won before his successful trip to Prestbury Park 12 months ago. Clearly tired of chasing Douvan around the circuit, the step-up in trip was inevitable. “He's been good, I'm very happy with him. As for Cheltenham, we'll just have to see. The logical race would be the Ryanair, but we'll just see what happens on Sunday, and leave our options open for the rest of the season.”

’tis Tizzard Again

Another Saturday brought another huge success for Colin Tizzard and his Dorset team, as they lifted the Hennessy Gold Cup.

Punters launched into race favourite Native River as if defeat was out of the question. And they were proved right, as the six-year-old held off a late challenge from Carole’s Destrier, to win the prestigious prize. Positioned towards the head of affairs by Richard Johnson, Tizzard’s charge jumped with gusto, sharing the lead with Double Ross throughout.

Turning for home the Twiston-Davies chaser was travelling the better of the two, and he swept to the lead, looking the likely winner. But as the pair approached the second last fence, the favourite had responded to Johnson’s urgings, and was back alongside his main rival. A prodigious leap at the last looked to have sealed the victory, but punters were made to sweat, as Noel Fehily produced a late charge from the Neil Mulholland trained Carole’s Destrier.

The winning distance of less than a length probably flattered the runner-up, with Native River appearing to pick-up again when challenged.

Tizzard spoke to Channel 4 after the victory, saying: “Everything was right for him today; going left-handed and a flat track. He went clear and looked like he would win easily. The other horse (Carole's Destrier) nearly got to him, but then he went again, which is the sign of a good, honest stayer.”

4 weeks' free access to Geegeez Gold

Speaking of future targets, the trainer hinted at a three-pronged assault in the Gold Cup: “He's in the Welsh National but he won't go there if it’s a slog. He's a stayer but he might just be a bit better than that. If he is in the same sort of form in March, he will join Thistlecrack and Cue Card. Hennessy winners go on to do that. They are right there in with the best of them.”

Richard Johnson was winning the Hennessy for the first time, and was clearly delighted when saying: “I was very lucky to pick up the ride on him at Aintree at the end of last season. Colin Tizzard said he stays and jumps and does what it says on the tin. Three and a quarter miles around here, you need a proper stayer and he had it in abundance. He probably idled and found a bit more. The big winners on Saturday is always what you are aiming at. This is race I've never won before and I've had quite a lot of goes. I've been second a couple of times so to win it is special.”

Carole’s Destrier finished the race to great effect, and looks every bit a national horse. He goes on all grounds, and his trainer, Neil Mulholland, confirmed: “He wants further. He will have an entry in this year's Grand National all going well. The plan was always to come here and go for the Welsh National so I don't see why that will change.”

Blaklion looked to have every chance turning for home, but his challenge flattened-out. He’ll have his wind checked, but I’m of the opinion that he’s a little one-paced. A stiff finish and softer ground will see him winning a valuable prize before the season is over.

And of the winner, Tizzard must now map a course for three potential Gold Cup challengers. There’s a chance this fella would be outpaced a little against the elite, but he finds a ton for pressure, and would be storming up that famous hill if taking his chance. He’s still 20s in places for the ‘big one’ in March. That looks a tasty and tempting price to me.

Va Va Broom – Brocade Racing Go Local

The familiar red and blue quartered silks of Brocade Racing will be carried by Pull The Chord at Taunton today.

Garth and Anne Broom are the owners behind the Brocade name. Their silks have found their way to the winners’ enclosure on numerous occasions in recent years, thanks to the likes of Hey Big Spender and Golden Chieftain.

Retired farmers from Bradford-on-Tone near Taunton, they have had a great deal of enjoyment and success over the past decade or so. Indeed as a betting proposition, they would be showing a healthy profit in six of the last seven campaigns.

Hey Big Spender has been a wonderful chaser for connections, winning the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle on three occasions. He also won the valuable Betfred Classic Chase at Warwick in 2012, lumping top-weight over the 3m 5f trip in the process.

4 weeks' free access to Geegeez Gold

Golden Chieftain brought the owners Cheltenham Festival success in 2013 with victory in the JLT Speciality Handicap Chase. He’s only won once since that memorable day, though that came this winter at Fontwell and he appears to be back on a favourable handicap mark. He’s entered in the Betfred Classic at Warwick this weekend, though it would be a major surprise if he was to repeat the achievement of Hey Big Spender four years ago.

Native River is their latest talented chaser and he looks to have the potential to achieve even greater things. He won a Grade 2 novice chase at Newbury back in November and speaking to Racing UK after the race, Garth Broom was full of excitement for the winter ahead, saying: “At the start of the straight, I was calculating what second prize money would be, but then two out I started shouting. We thought we'd come here and see what we've got. We've always liked him, and Colin has always said he thought he was an RSA Chase horse.”

He then ran with great credit to be third at Kempton over Christmas in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase. The tight track probably didn’t suit that day though trainer Colin Tizzard hinted that the RSA was still the intended target in March. The galloping track and stiff finish at Prestbury Park ought to prove ideal.

Tomorrow’s runner is under the care of Philip Hobbs. Pull The Chord is three from five over hurdles and won comfortably at Exeter on his seasonal debut. He looks more than capable of following up, having won this same race a year ago.

More winners will inevitably come the way of Brocade Racing, but in Native River they have a chaser with the potential to follow in the hoofprints of Hey Big Spender. There’s even the chance that the owners could find themselves in the winners’ enclosure once again during that special week in March, maybe rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mr Ricci and Mr O’Leary.

Tip Top Tizzard

Tizzard with Cue Card

Tizzard with Cue Card

He may not be tearing up trees with regards to the number of winners he’s producing, but prize money is certainly stacking up nicely, and Colin Tizzard suddenly has several horses within the yard capable of winning at the highest level.

Thistlecrack’s performances have been well documented. He is a horse with a huge future, and already a short-priced favourite for one of the main events at the Cheltenham Festival.

Cue Card looks to be back to his very best. An operation on his trapped epiglottis appears to have revitalised the old warrior, and he has already taken the Charlie Hall and the Betfair Chase in a sparkling start to the season. Many anticipate a huge run in the King George this weekend, and Tizzard recently said: “I just have to make sure he's fit and well. I would just love to win a King George. He's been a damn good horse for five years now and he deserves to.”

The trainer also has Native River primed for a shot at the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Saturday. He’s impressed in back to back victories, having stepped up in trip at Exeter and Newbury. He’s a thorough stayer who finds plenty for pressure. There’s a chance that a flat, tight track such as Kempton will prove less than ideal, but further rain will help, and he’ll be galloping on relentlessly when others have given up the ghost. He looks an ideal type for the four-miler at Cheltenham in March.

4 weeks' free access to Geegeez Gold

At Chepstow on Sunday the trainer is hoping for another big-run from Theatre Guide, this time in the Welsh National. He ran a cracker in the Hennessy last month, running on strongly to finish second. His jumping can be a little erratic, but Tizzard appears confident that if he’s in touch late on he’ll play a huge part in the outcome.

The trainer points to a move of stables as the catalyst to the current upturn in fortunes. Leaving Venn Farm for a purpose built yard just beyond the top of the gallops has been hailed as a major success. Moving out of the valley to new aerated barns with skylights and plenty of ventilation is thought by Tizzard to be a huge plus. And his horses appear to have responded.

Speaking to local press prior to the move an excited trainer had said: “We've been thinking about this for two years. It's a healthy environment there with wonderful views – it's a dream come true to have a training establishment and a separate dairy farm which will still be based at Venn Farm. Now all I need to do is to get the winners to pay for it.”

He now has around 60 horses at his disposal and remains in the heart of the beautiful Blackmore Vale countryside, just 10 miles from Wincanton Racecourse. His son and former jockey Joe, is in charge of the dairy farm but still retains his role as assistant trainer. He has the task of completing his farm duties by 7am before heading up to support Dad.

Tizzard senior was born into the family business in 1956. The second son of farmers Leslie and Marjorie, he grew up on the family farm. Dairy farming and horses have always been his passion and he’s managed to make a success of both.

The fortunes of the yard have so often been dependant on the performances of Cue Card. However, signs are that the burden of expectation is now to be spread among a number of top class horses, with the likelihood of major pots being won during an exciting winter.