Favourite Thistlecrack out to defy history at Cheltenham

TOM SCUDAMORE knows past form will count for nothing when King George Chase hero Thistlecrack reappears at Cheltenham today.

Thistlecrack ridden by Tom Scudamore.

No favourite has won the Cotswold Chase, a significant Gold Cup trial, since 1999 and the vanquished include Scudamore’s mount Grands Crus, who was pulled up three years ago.

Yet, as he said so eloquently at Wetherby earlier this week when he rode a treble, horses do not know the statistics and few have the scope of the exuberant Thistlecrack, who made history when becoming the first novice to win the King George since it was first staged at closure-threatened Kempton in 1937.

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This was Thistlecrack’s fourth run over fences and trainer Colin Tizzard was keen for last year’s World Hurdle winner to gain further experience of Cheltenham before the Gold Cup in March.

It will be fascinating to see how Thistlecrack handles the open ditches after some rather flamboyant jumping in November when the colt encountered them for the first time.

Scudamore freely admits that he has watched replays of the King George virtually every day since the famous victory.

“It’s something to look back on with pride, but it’s gone now and we move on to the next one,” said Scudamore, who is also aware that his late grandfather Michael won both the King George and Gold Cup in the same season 60 years ago.

“It’s very exciting to get back on him. He’s a wonderful horse to be associated with and obviously he has carried all before him and there’s not a lot more we need to say.

“You have to keep focused and keep your eye on the ball. He seems in very good order, I had a sit on him and a jump in the week. I was very pleased with him, so it’s all systems go.

“It’s a competitive race, you’ve a dual King George winner, Grade One winners, but the level Thistlecrack is at, of course you’re going to be taking on the best horses.

“Hopefully it will be another good experience for him and we can continue our winning run.”

While the Tizzard stable have had a quiet January by their own high standards with highly-rated French import Alary scoping dirty after under-performing in last weekend’s Peter Marsh Chase, the trainer says the biggest obstacle has been the freezing weather in Dorset.

“He’s absolutely fine. Thursday was the first time I’d been able to school him because the ground has been frozen for the past week and a half,” said Tizzard.

“Tom Scudamore schooled him over three hurdles and six fences, just to keep us all happy really, and he was brilliant. We didn’t need to do it, but it’s quite good fun, schooling them, as long as nothing goes wrong.

“What are we all expecting? We’ve seen last season and this what he can do to horses mid-race. He puts on a spurt which takes them all out of their comfort zone.

“My job is to make sure we do what we’ve got to do with him and then when he’s right, we run him. He’s lovely at home, brilliant. We just need ordinary luck and he’ll take all the beating – there’s no doubt about that. He’s a strong stayer who could probably win over any distance.”

Today’s opponents are no slouches – they include Smad Place and Many Clouds who were first and second respectively in last year’s Cotswold Chase on ground far more testing than today’s forecast conditions.

Many Clouds, who won the 2015 Grand National, returned to winning ways at Aintree last month. “He’s a horse who’d go over a cliff for you. People love that sort of horse. If he goes and wins on Saturday, then he’s got to come into the equation for the Gold Cup,” said trainer Oliver Sherwood. “I don’t expect to beat Thistlecrack, but you should never be frightened of one horse. I’m very happy with him and he’s in good form.”

As for Smad Place, trainer Alan King was less bullish. “He is going to find it hard as it looks a classy renewal,” said the handler.

The seven runners also include the Paul Nicholls-trained Silviniaco Conti. A two-time King George winner, the veteran is now in the twilight of his career. Yet his presence means Thistlecrack will face a real test as he puts his reputation on the line just seven weeks before the Gold Cup, the race that matters most of all.