Punters received an early Christmas present with the news that two of Colin Tizzard’s star performers will face off in the latest renewal of the top-class Grade One contest that is the King George VI Chase, which will go to post at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Getting underway at 3.15pm, the three-mile contest boasts a fantastic pedigree and forms the middle leg of the £1million bonus on offer to the winner of the Betfair Chase, King George VI Chase and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March.
Cue Card won the first leg at Haydock with a scintillating display, but the ten-year old will face stiff competition from young pretender and stablemate Thistlecrack if he is to land the second leg.
The King’s Theatre gelding has been resurgent since his wind operation, which has seen him largely fulfil his undoubted talent, and he outstayed Vautour in this contest twelve months ago to atone for two earlier defeats in the contest in the preceding seasons where his oft-suspect stamina would be in evidence.
However, it has transpired that his inability to truly stay has been down to issues with his wind, and following an operation to correct his breathing he hasn’t looked back and went into the Cheltenham Gold Cup last term full of confidence on the back of three previous wins earlier in the season.
Still travelling well when falling three fences from home, we’ll never know if he would have beaten Don Cossack to land the Blue Riband; but he bounced back to win next time at Aintree in the Betfred Bowl prior to running a below-par race at Punchestown where his seasonal exertions may have caught up with him.
His defeat behind Irish Cavalier in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby has been attributed to both a lack of a prior run and tactics, and he made no mistake at Haydock when running out a convincing winner over the returning Coneygree who unfortunately misses this race.
It would take a brave man to bet against Cue Card following up his heroics of twelve months ago, although in his stablemate THISTLECRACK he faces a potential superstar.
The 2015 World Hurdle winner has been imperious since stepping up to three miles, routing Alpha Des Obeaux and others to score at Cheltenham prior to again routing opposition at Aintree in April.
Sent chasing this term by the Dorset handler, the Kayf Tara gelding has posted bloodless defeats in all three starts to date over the larger obstacles with wins at Chepstow, Cheltenham and Newbury – three of the toughest tracks in the country for novices; while the overall form is debatable despite the latest win coming in the Grade Two Worcester Novices’ Chase, he did have more to fear from the fences than his rivals, and it remains open to some debate what he has beaten thus far.
Nevertheless, he can only beat those who compete against him, and he posted his latest success while firmly still on the bridle; but he steps out of novice company into the very top level, and meeting the likes of stablemate Cue Card from level weights will ensure a true test of his credentials as a Gold Cup candidate.
But he has won with such consummate ease in all three starts that he looks well capable of making the step out of novice company, and aside from a couple of guessy leaps at Cheltenham he has largely been foot-perfect. Although Cue Card is admittedly at the very top of his game judged on his success at Haydock last time, Thistlecrack has age on his side being an eight-year old, and open to considerable progress he gains a narrow vote over his more established stablemate.
The ante-post market suggests that this race is a straight shoot-out between the pair, and indeed the presence of the duo has scared off much of the opposition with the likes of Valseur Lido, Don Poli, Outlander and Blaklion all coming out of the race in the wake of the announcement that Thistlecrack will take his chance.
Of the remainder, Josses Hill and Tea For Two will lock horns once again after the pair finished 1-2 in the recent Peterborough Chase.
Nicky Henderson steps the Winged Love gelding up in trip having shaped as if three miles would suit when beating Nick Williams’ start by six lengths at Huntingdon; and the gelding has really got his act together over the larger obstacles since adopting forcing tactics under which he has won three of his four starts when setting off in front.
His sole defeat since the switch came in the Ryanair Chase behind Vautour, but he has since posted defeats of Camping Ground and Tea For Two in subsequent starts where his jumping has been much more assured.
A dual-winner over this course over fences, he needs more to trouble the Tizzard pair upped in trip and he’s far from certain to confirm Huntingdon form with Tea For Two who is 3-3 over this course and who won the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase on this card twelve months ago to hand jockey Lizzie Kelly a first Grade One winner.
He’s been beaten on all three starts since, but his subsequent run at Sandown in the Scilly Isles was over an inadequate trip, and he made a pleasing return to action behind Antony at Ascot in October where he went well for a long way before lack of fitness told.
An uncharacteristic blunder at Huntingdon aside, he largely ran well behind Jossie’s Hill in the Peterborough Chase, which again came over shorter than ideal; back up in distance, the Kayf Tara gelding may be able to reverse that form with Nicky Henderson’s charge, but both that pair have a lot on their plate to lower the colours of the Tizzard duo if they arrive on top of their game.
Silviniaco Conti meanwhile is no stranger to success in this race, having beaten Cue Card to win in 2013 and following up twelve months on with a gutsy success over Dynaste. Cue Card finished fifth in that renewal, and Paul Nicholls’ charge went on to capture the Betfred Bowl at Aintree later in the season on the back of a poor run at Cheltenham in the Gold Cup.
The Dom Alco gelding hasn’t been in the best of form since that last success, however, finishing behind Cue Card in the 2015 Betfair Chase prior to pulling up in this contest twelve months ago. Despite winning at Ascot in the Ascot Chase back in February, he pulled up in the Grand National and turned in a tame effort back at Haydock in November in the latest renewal of the Betfair Chase.
A return to this venue may spark a revival, but on past form he has a lot to do to land a third win in the race and the feeling is his Grade One days may be behind him now.
To all intents and purposes a match between the established top-class chaser that is Cue Card, and the young pretender and stablemate THISTLECRACK ho has been confirmed for the race on the back of three bloodless victories in novice company which include a Grade Two last time.
That wasn’t a strong race, but Colin Tizzard’s charge never came off the bridle in despatching his rivals, and there is certainly significant improvement still to come from the eight-year old Kayf Tara gelding.
The 2015 World Hurdle winner has jumped for fun around three of the toughest courses in the country for novices, passing every test with flying colours even allowing for a couple of mistakes around Cheltenham that he was fully entitled to make. While he meets his stablemate Cue Card at the top of his game, the raw potential of the John Snook-owned gelding just edges a narrow vote over Tizzard’s other runner.
Assuming both arrive in form and jump round, the pair should prove too good for the remaining runners, from whom Tea For Two back over three miles may represent the best option to pick up any pieces dropped by either of the Tizzard duo in the race; but he’ll surely need one or both to fall or run well below their best if he’s to win.
2016 KING GEORGE VI CHASE SELECTION – THISTLECRACK