WAS the ever popular Cue Card’s winning comeback in Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase a one-off – or proof that the top-class steeplechaser is back to his best and ready to compete for jump racing’s top Grade One prizes?
Even though trainer Colin Tizzard has barely stopped smiling since his stable star’s heartwarming win – only he and his son Joe know the seriousness of the horse’s breathing difficulties – he knows the acid test is today’s Betfair Chase at Haydock.
This is the race that Cue Card won two years ago – he was imperious that day over the gallant grey Dynaste who reopposes – before beginning a losing streak which only ended at Wetherby on October 31.
The outcome of today’s select five-runner race will be revealing because the line-up includes Dynaste, Ballynagour and Holywell, three horses who could not match Cue Card’s fluent jumping and relentless galloping in the Charlie Hall.
The one imponderable is Silviniaco Conti – the reigning champion bypassed Wetherby in favour of a hurdle race at Kempton. Yet the presence of the 2012 and 2014 Betfair Chase winner does not perturb Tizzard whose likable demeanour – the trainer combines his passion for horses with running a Westcountry dairy farm – makes him such a popular, and approachable, figure on the racecourse.
Indeed, Tizzard believes Cue Card is even better if the feedback from his son Joe, a former top class jockey who now rides Cue Card on the gallops, is an accurate barometer of the horse’s wellbeing.
“He came out of Wetherby absolutely fine. Joe thinks he’s improved. We think he’s better than he was at Wetherby,” said Tizzard senior.
“At Wetherby he was getting the allowances and Silviniaco Conti and the rest are going to be hard to beat, but he’s back nearly to where he ever was.
“He’s a happy horse and when we worked him earlier in the week, he came up the gallop with his head in his chest and roaring away.”
The prospect of testing conditions holds no fears for the trainer who added: “He wants to do it and now he can breathe again properly, I’m sure he’ll do it again.
“Some of his best form is in heavy ground. He’ll float on top of heavy ground no worries at all. I think in these championship races, they’ll take it in turns winning. With a horse it’s got to be on the day.
“If we get beat it’s not the end of the world. We’ve got no right to win them all and on the day, one bad jump can put paid to any horse.”
Cue Card’s class should never be under-estimated – the horse’s many successes also include a victory in the 2010 Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival and a magnificent success in the 2012 Ryanair Chase.
The same applies to Dynaste – his win in the 2013 Ryanair explains why Tom Scudamore opted, after several sleeplesss nights, to ride the David Pipe-trained grey, rather than stablemate Ballynagour who is a Cheltenham Festival winner in his own right.
“It was a very difficult choice, they have been great friends to me over the years,” said Scudamore.
“I’ve had a lot of very good days on them. Ballynagour winning in France was probably one of the best days I’ve had racing, so it was a very difficult choice. But at the end of the day you’re not in it for emotions, you want to win these races and I just felt Dynaste shaded it. In the end I plumped for Dynaste, he’s run so well there before, been second and third, he’s a Grade One winner and a top-class horse. So are all the other ones, but I felt he probably just shaded it.”
As for Silviniaco Conti, he is bidding to give champion trainer Paul Nicholls a sixth win in the race since its inception in 2005. Yet, after twice disappointing in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Boxing Day’s King George Chase at Kempton appears to be the number one target for his charge.
“He wasn’t as far forward as I wanted to run in a Charlie Hall or anything like that, hence the run over hurdles. He has improved enormously for that run. He has not missed a beat since Kempton and his stamina will be very important this weekend,” said Nicholls.
“The flat track is made for him. He is in really good shape and that run will have done him the world of good. Really testing ground is probably ideal for him as all he does is gallop and jump.”