THE King George VI Chase is emblematic of some of the most dramatic days in jump racing history.
Fifty years ago, the legendary Arkle ran for the final time, finishing a heart-wrenching second after sustaining a career-ending injury mid-race.
Thirty years ago, Desert Orchid – the horse that personified Christmas racing – recorded the first of a then record four wins in steeplechasing’s winter highlight.
Ten years ago, Kauto Star survived a last-fence blunder before landing the first of five wins in Kempton’s showpiece three-mile race.
Three of the greatest equine warriors in history, it is a measure of the task facing Thistlecrack as Colin Tizzard’s scintillating star attempts to become the first novice to win the King George in the illustrious history of the Grade One contest, which was first staged in 1937.
As this year’s runaway World Hurdle winner duels for favouritism with stablemate and defending champion Cue Card in a race for the ages, it will not be lost on Thistlecrack’s jockey, Tom Scudamore, that it is 60 years since his late grandfather Michael won the 1956 King George on Rose Park for Peter Cazalet.
He believes it is about time another Scudamore joined the roll of honour – this was one of the few big races to elude his father Peter – and he has no qualms about the demands expected of Thistlecrack.
As well as Cue Card, the select field includes a forgotten two-time winner, Silviniaco Conti, Nicky Henderson’s classy Josses Hill and Tea For Two as the latter’s jockey, Lizzie Kelly, attempts to become the first female jockey to win the race.
“It’s time to take on the big guns,” said Scudamore, who was a remote second in the 2009 renewal when Madison du Berlais was beaten a mere 36 lengths by the then imperious Kauto Star.
“We had a couple of chats. John and Heather (Snook, owners) were always going to make the final decision and they asked me about Thistlecrack and how I felt about his progress and they did the same with Colin Tizzard.
“They have always done what’s best for the horse and it’s very exciting. They asked me how he was getting on and whether he had enough experience to go for the King George.
“He’s different from other novices in that you get those wonderful novices who go and win an Albert Bartlett or a Neptune novice hurdle and have never stepped out of novice class and have to find their way over fences in novice races in their first season.
“He’s won in Grade One company. The galloping part has never been the issue. It’s just his technique, the same as any other horse going from hurdles to fences.
“It’s a different discipline and not all can take to it. He’s taken to it very well and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t do.”
A comfortable winner at Chepstow on his chase debut, Thistlecrack’s exuberance at Cheltenham last month had the horse’s detractors in full voice before the horse was virtually foot perfect at Newbury’s Hennessy meeting.
Yet, given the horse will be nine on New Year’s Day, connections are also aware that they do not have time on their side if they want to win jump racing’s two premier grade One contests – the King George and Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Cue Card bounced back from a below-par reappearance at Wetherby to win Haydock’s Betfair Chase, and jockey Paddy Brennan refuses to contemplate defeat ahead of today’s date with destiny, Thistlecrack’s significant supporters include Kauto Star’s jockey, Ruby Walsh.
“This is the smallest field I can remember – and it can play into Thistlecrack’s hands,” he wrote on his Paddy Power blog.
“With so few runners, it should make his life that little bit easier.
“He is relatively inexperienced with just three runs – but three wins – over fences. However, he’ll get a clear sight at the Kempton fences against so few runners – rather than having eight or 10 rivals to contend with at every obstacle.
“Don’t get me wrong, winning a King George will be no gimme and he’ll have to be on his game to beat his tried-and-tested stablemate to do it.
“However, Thistlecrack can overcome his inexperience and the small field may be more of an advantage to Tom Scudamore this time than Cue Card’s battle-hardened experience is to Paddy Brennan.”