EVEN though Cue Card will be galloping into the unknown, both in terms of distance and going, when he lines up in today’s William Hill King George VI Chase at Kempton, jockey Joe Tizzard could not be more confident ahead of a potentially career-defining race.
“I wouldn’t mind it a bit drier, and he’s got a question to answer with the three-mile trip, but we are confident he’ll get it,” says the personable Tizzard who combines riding with helping his trainer father Colin to run the family’s thriving dairy farm in the West Country.
“He’s certainly better than ever. Tactics-wise he’s growing up. He’s not as keen as he was in his hurdling days. I’m not going to blaze out in front, but I’ll ride him nice and prominent, get into a rhythm and get him jumping and then try and save a bit for later on because he’s probably the fastest horse in the race.”
Today’s 10-runner field is headed by the 2010 winner Long Run – while second-season chasers of the calibre of David Pipe’s Grands Crus, the Paul Nicholls-trained Kauto Stone and the Tizzard family’s Cue Card look to lead steeplechasing into a new era following the retirement of five-time King George hero Kauto Star.
Few in racing would begrudge Joe Tizzard coming with the late burst to win the biggest prize of a turbulent career that has finally started to take off thanks to horses of the calibre of Cue Card, who burst onto the National Hunt scene when winning the 2010 Cheltenham Bumper at absurdly long odds of 40-1.
A talented teenager who was prolific enough to break AP McCoy’s record for most wins in a season by a conditional jockey, Tizzard was stable jockey to Paul Nicholls before key owners, like John Hales, started to request a more high-profile rider for their horses.
He is also fortunate to even be riding. A hideous fall at Hereford a decade ago saw Tizzard given just a 50-50 chance of walking again after he suffered a crush vertebrae when Soul King turned over at the 12th. The rider had initially escaped unharmed before a pursuing horse fell onto his back.
He used another life up when his head became trapped in a haymaking baler on the family farm – it is a miracle that his eyes and ears suffered no harm when Tizzard’s attempt at DIY on the machine ended in near tragedy.
But, while South West racing is dominated by the likes of the aforementioned Nicholls, Pipe and Philip Hobbs, who saddles Captain Chris in the King George, it would be foolish to write off the upwardly mobile Tizzard yard.
“We’re now having good horses, but it has taken a lot of hard work,” explains the jockey who is required, once a week, to milk 250 cows at dawn. “We’ve got a few owners who can pay a bit more for a horse – and you have a better chance with good horses of picking up better prizes. The quality is improving year on year.
“Take Cue Card. Bob and Jean Bishop bought him at the sales in Ireland. I’d been riding a bit for them, dad was at the sales and brought him home. When we first had him, he wasn’t overly big but Rodi Greene broke him in and said almost from the word go that this horse was different class.”
He’s certainly not disappointed. His Bumper win at Cheltenham was followed up in March 2011 by a fourth-place finish in the Supreme Novices by Al Ferof, who would have been a leading King George contender before suffering a tendon injury last week, and the precocious Sprinter Sacre who is being described as ‘Frankel over fences’.
As a novice chaser, Cue Card progressed sufficiently to finish seven lengths behind Sprinter Sacre in this year’s Arkle – no chaser has got closer to Nicky Henderson’s champion.
“That was no mean feat. There were good horses unable to go with the winner from the top of the hill three-quarters-of-a-mile out,” said Tizzard.
And then there was Cue Card’s emphatic 26-length win in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter last month, albeit a race staged over just two miles, one furlong. This race was won by a similar margin in 2001 by Henrietta Knight’s Best Mate who went on to be second in the King George before recording three successive Cheltenham Gold Cup triumphs.
“After the Bumper, I just thought he might not be as good as we hoped but he gave me a real good feel at Exeter,” said Tizzard.
“We went into the Haldon Gold Cup confident that we would win, but we were surprised by the distance and how quickly he put the race to bed. I knew he had that kind of performance in him – I was chuffed. The test on Boxing Day will be to ride him conservatively and hope to use his pace, his best asset, to maximum effect in the home straight. All the form from last year is rock solid – all the second-season chasers are proving that.”
Tizzard was fortunate to ride Flagship Uberalles to Arkle Trophy glory in 1999, with the horse subsequently winning a Queen Mother Champion Chase.
“He was more workmanlike, Cue Card has that little bit of flair,” he said.
He also has no regrets about being usurped by Ruby Walsh as top jockey at the Nicholls stable. The experience, he said, helped him mature and Tizzard says the it helped improve his working relationship with his father – a fact borne out by recent results.
“Ten years down the line, dad and I get on fine. We’re a lot cleverer now than when I first left school,” he adds. “Paul’s job was fantastic. I had 450 winners. He wanted to be champion trainer but, as he got new owners, they were not necessarily fans of me – John Hales had his own retained jockey. Even after I left, I rode 36 winners for him in the next season and was third on See More Business in the 2002 Gold Cup behind Best Mate.
“The Nicholls job was a high-profile one – but you have to be able to handle the pressure – and just because I ride my dad’s horses does not make us any less determined. Quite the opposite.”