AFTER Cheltenham Gold Cup ante-post favourite Thistlecrack’s flawless round of steeplechasing at Newbury, trainer Colin Tizzard observed: “I don’t think it gets any better than that, does it?”
By the end of the afternoon, the Dorset dairy farmer-cum-trainer was having to reappraise his statement after Wetherby runner-up Native River won the historic Hennessy Gold Cup before Ultragold took the concluding chase.
Seven days after the stable’s standard-bearer, Cue Card, won Haydock’s Betfair Chase, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Tizzard challenges his West Country rival Paul Nicholls in the race to be champion trainer.
However, it was Thistlecrack who oozed class under Tom Scudamore exactly one year after John and Heather Snook’s horse of a lifetime confirmed his prowess by winning the Long Distance Hurdle. He has not looked back.
Given how the horse’s at times heart-stopping jumping two weeks earlier at Cheltenham was crabbed by armchair critics, this was almost flawless as the novice chaser jumped with unerring accuracy.
That last season’s World Hurdle winner was just three seconds outside the three-mile course record at Newbury, without being extended, gives added credence to an exhilarating performance which was greeted by sustained applause from a knowledgeable National Hunt crowd as the smiling Scudamore eased his mount down.
Unbeaten from three starts over fences, Thistlecrack is likely to reappear in the Grade One Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day rather than the feature King George Chase won by Cue Card last year. Yet a crack at the Gold Cup next March looks feasible on this evidence.
“He was brilliant today,” eulogised Tizzard. “Any fears that we had from Cheltenham were put to bed. It is experience, that’s all it is. We needed to get some runs into him before whatever we are going to do after Christmas.
“He gives his fences plenty of daylight but that is better than going fast and low at them. You can school them lots at home but they still need racecourse experience. Maybe I am just getting him fit now, too!”
Scudamore’s glee was self-evident following his debrief with the trainer’s son, Joe, a former National Hunt rider. “It was a great thrill. Joe said that we were three seconds outside the track record and Thistlecrack never came out of second gear,” said the winning jockey.
“He has jumped brilliantly. There are more tests to come obviously and he has got to step up and take on better horses but he was pretty good.
“I think everyone was a bit harsh on him at Cheltenham. He made one mistake there and, if you watch him at the next ditch, he has got some height at it and has gone that far out the other side.
“He was superb today. He has really learnt from the last time and keeps on learning. He is a very fast learner and, even at this early stage, he is something different.”
As well as Thistlecrack and Cue Card, Tizzard could also run Hennessy hero Native River in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. A relentless galloper, the horse’s second-place finish in Wetherby’s West Yorkshire Hurdle – the horse was running on at the end – put him just right for this test.
A belated first win in this historic race for the Tizzard stable, and champion jockey Richard Johnson, Native River’s lead at the last was sufficient to deny the fast-finishing Carole’s Destrier, with Neil Mulholland’s charge putting down an eye-catching Grand National marker.
This was the one major race to elude 20-times champion Sir AP McCoy and Johnson was pleased to get one over his great rival.
“People keep telling me how I had never won this race, so it is always nice to get one that you haven’t done before,” said Johnson.
“I was a bit worried that I wasn’t going that well turning in but he is one of the horses that, the more you ask, the more he gives. He won a Grade One over fences last season, had a great run over hurdles the other day and has won a Hennessy off 11st, so he is going the right way.
“He is a very good horse and good horses make jockeys’ lives easier because they can jump, they can travel and they put you in the right position. I don’t see any reason why he doesn’t deserve thoughts of the Gold Cup because he stays and jumps. I was worried 50 yards before the post but he found more when he needed to.”