Tizzard ponders over Cheltenham

STICK or twist? This is the Cheltenham conundrum facing connections of Cue Card after Colin Tizzard’s steeplechaser trumped his rivals in the Grade One Betfair Ascot Chase.

Well Refreshed and jockey Joshua Moore

The comfortable manner of this victory suggested that Cue Card’s likely Festival target will be the Ryanair Chase – and the 2010 Champion Bumper winner remains 5-1 ante-post favourite for this fiercely-competitive contest which has attracted a quality line-up.

Yet, crucially, Cue Card is one of just nine horses left in the more prestigious two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase because of the ominous presence of Nicky Henderson’s precocious chaser Sprinter Sacre in the line up.

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Given that just seven lengths separated Sprinter Sacre and Cue Card in last season’s Arkle Trophy, the Queen Mother would – in any other circumstances – be a very tempting proposition for this most enthusiastic of jumpers who was recording the most significant win of his burgeoning career over the larger obstacles.

There were none of the mistakes that characterised Cue Card’s below-par run in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day when he never recovered from a first fence blunder; instead there was the fluency which was a hallmark of the horse’s runaway success in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter.

He relished setting the pace under the trainer’s son Joe and was still travelling comfortably when close challenger Captain Chris, the King George runner-up, took off too early at the penultimate fence and lost all momentum, though Richard Johnson’s mount should not be dismissed from the Cheltenham Gold Cup reckoning because of this error.

Eight lengths adrift in fourth was the Dominic Elsworth-ridden Somersby, another horse that is more likely to take his place in the Ryanair rather than a much depleted Champion Chase at the Festival.

An even bigger disappointment was Finian’s Rainbow, the reigning Queen Mother Champion Chase, who was a distant sixth and last to finish. Now 10, even the tacky ground couldn’t excuse this inexplicably poor run from a horse whose best days may now be behind him.

The manner in which Cue Card galloped to the line at the end of this two mile, three furlong race suggested that an additional quarter-of-a-mile at Cheltenham will not be an issue, though the seven-year-old does have speed that would not be out of place in the Queen Mother.

“That big black horse (Sprinter Sacre) is quite frightening,” confided Tizzard senior when asked about his Cheltenham gamble.

“Joe thought he had two or three more gears when Captain Chris made his mistake, maybe that’s just him talking. He’s a very good horse. He ran well in the King George (fifth), but I wasn’t sure he was quite himself that day, even though I couldn’t find anything wrong.

“I expect we’ll leave a decision about Cheltenham nearer the time. If Sprinter Sacre wasn’t in the Queen Mother, that would be very tempting, but if Sprinter Sacre’s there on his A-game, I’d imagine we’ll go the other way.”

The Tizzards were not the only racing family celebrating at Ascot as they were eclipsed by a spectacular double by trainer Gary Moore and his two jockey sons.

First up was a reborn Vino Griego who was an assured winner of Ascot’s Weatherbys Hamilton Chase under Jamie Moore in a race that saw leading John Smith’s Grand National prospect Cappa Bleu finish second on his comeback run.

“We’re not training him differently, we may be riding him a bit differently, but his whole attitude has changed,” said Moore senior. “He’s looking like the horse we always thought he could be. We’ll look at the novice handicap chase at Cheltenham (Pulteney Land Investments), if he qualifies.”

Moore had just collected his trophy when the heavily-backed Well Refreshed, ridden by the handler’s younger son Joshua, landed Haydock’s Betfred Grand National Trial despite virtually demolishing the final fence.

Though not entered in Aintree’s world-famous race, Well Refreshed began to creep into contention rounding the home turn, swept by Rigadin De Beauchene in the straight and still sealed a 10-length win in spite of his significant error at the last.

Welsh National winner Monbeg Dude, whose co-owners include Yorkshire rugby legend Mike Tindall, ran on to finish third.

“He’s not been a natural jumper. He’s a bit gangly and probably has more ribs than he should, but he has improved and it’s just about trying to get him into a rhythm,” said the winning rider whose other brother, Ryan, is the three-times champion Flat jockey.

“It’s my biggest winner and a great day for all the team at home.”

Meanwhile, Donald McCain’s Grand National contender Across The Bay made a winning return to the smaller obstacles with a tremendously tough performance from the front in the Betfred Mobile Lotto Hurdle, better known as the Rendlesham.

The horse benefitted from a confident ride by Middleham’s Henry Brooke, the reigning champion conditional, but it remains to be seen whether he will retain the ride at Aintree as this is a potential mount for stable jockey Jason Maguire who was at Ascot.

Catterick scorer Only Orsenfoolsies was a game winner of the Victor Ludorum Juvenile Hurdle for Middleham trainer Micky Hammond.

His assistant, Gemma Hogg, said: “I think Micky is going to give him an entry in the Fred Winter at Cheltenham, but he’ll probably wait for Aintree.”

The Cheltenham Festival credentials of the JP McManus-owned At Fishers Cross, meanwhile, were boosted by Whisper’s effortless victory at Ffos Las yesterday under Malton-born jockey Andrew Tinkler.

Though the Nicky Henderson-trained horse could only finish fourth on his last outing to the AP McCoy-ridden At Fishers Cross, who is a leading fancy for the Neptune Investment Hurdle, Whisper could not have been jumped more impressively under a confident Tinkler.

It also means that Henderson and Tinkler are now nine from 11 (with two seconds) with favourites at the Welsh track.

Whisper still holds a Festival entry in the Neptune while the horse’s owner Dai Walters, the Ffos Las boss, indicated that his Oscar Whisky is likely to line up in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle next month, despite appearing not to stay for the three-mile trip last year.

The absence of four-time winner Big Buck’s through injury is one factor that is swaying Walters, who said: “We’ll wait and see what the weather is like. I’ll be fair to the public and say he’ll go for the World Hurdle.

“But I have paid £1,000 this week to leave him in the Champion Hurdle as things can change.”