Things We Learned » Thistlecrack looked great – but may have to step up again

Thistlecrack looked great – but may have to step up again

Thistlecrack looked brilliant in the King George.  Colin Tizzard’s horse travelled with his customary verve and enthusiasm, he showed his pace and he showed his stamina and, crucially, his jumping was good.

Actually, he out-jumped his stable companion Cue Card, and you would have got fair odds about that as they lined up.

It is some achievement, a thrice-raced novice winning a King George.  You don’t win a top class chase against the top staying chasers in the business on your fourth run in a chase.  Or you didn’t, until Coneygree won the Gold Cup last year.  (Yes, 2015 is still last year.)

It might be a trend.

It is possible to pick holes, not because Thistlecrack wasn’t good, because he was, he could hardly have done any more than he did, but because he may not have been pushed as hard as he might have been pushed.

Cue Card was not as good as he can be.  He missed a few of his fences, he didn’t travel or jump as well as he can travel and jump.  He only beat Silviniaco Conti by a short head for second place, the horse he beat by 42 lengths when they last met in the Betfair Chase. 

And Tea For Two was only another head back in third.  Tea For Two is a talented chaser and he excels at Kempton, but he is rated 23lb inferior to Cue Card.  He really shouldn’t have been getting to within a short head and a head of last year’s King George winner.

Thistlecrack won by just over three lengths.  Admittedly it could have been more, if Tom Scudamore hadn’t been jumping the last three fences as carefully as he did, ensuring that he got to the other side safely as a priority.  We just don’t know how much more.

The same is true of the time.  It could have been faster if Thistlecrack had been pushed harder, but we don’t know by how much.  And the winning time as it stands was not overly impressive. 

It was faster than standard by a half a second, and it was just faster than Racing Post par by 0.02secs/furlong, but that is not overly fast for a King George. 

Cue Card and Vautour went 0.20secs/furlong faster than par last year, Silviniaco Conti went 0.18secs/furlong faster than par in 2014 and 0.17secs/furlong faster in 2013.  The 11-rising-12-year-old Kauto Star went 0.21secs/furlong faster in 2011 and the nine-year-old Kauto Star went 0.40secs/furlong faster in 2009.

Unsurprisingly, the King George is usually run in a significantly faster time than the time in which they run the Feltham Chase, the Grade 1 novices’ race run over the King George course and distance on the same day.  Kauto Star was over eight seconds faster in the King George in 2009, for example, than Long Run was in winning the Feltham.  Cue Card and Vautour were six and a half seconds faster last year than Tea For Two was in the Feltham.  Silviniaco Conti was seven and a half seconds faster than Annacotty in 2013.

On Monday, Thistlecrack clocked a time that was just 0.7 seconds faster than the time that his stable companion Royal Vacation clocked in winning the Feltham Chase.  Not only that, but if Might Bite had popped the last instead of standing way off and crashing to the floor, Nicky Henderson’s horse would have gone significantly faster than Thistlecrack. 

Say Might Bite was 20 lengths clear at the final fence, and say he would have won by 16 lengths, then, taking one length as 0.25 seconds, he would have gone over three seconds faster than Thistlecrack.  Of course, time is not everything, but it is one of the significant indicators that we have of the merit of a performance. 

Put with that the fact that Thistlecrack’s least impressive performance over fences was on the one occasion on which he raced over fences at Cheltenham, and that his chase wins have been gained in fields of, respectively, five, four, five and five, and there is still something to prove.

Thistlecrack is unquestionably a top class National Hunt racehorse, some say potentially the best they have ever seen.  That may well be the case, we will hopefully find out just how good he is in the fullness of time.  It will be a fascinating journey.  For now, you are entitled to look for potential weaknesses in the case for the even money favourite for the Gold Cup, and the Thistlecrack case may not be watertight yet.


Riders excelled 

There were a few excellent rides this week.  There was Jack Kennedy’s ride on Outlander in the Lexus Chase on Wednesday for starters, as much for the significance of it as the substance.  It was a typical no-nonsense ride from the youngster, just got his horse travelling and jumping, made his ground from the second last, gave his horse every chance, and was strong in the finish beside Ruby Walsh and David Mullins and Bryan Cooper.  

It was about time that Jack Kennedy rode a Grade 1 winner.  His talent deserved a Grade 1 winner, even if he is only 17, and he had gone close recently with Apple’s Jade and Brelade.   Fitting also that this was his 100th winner, nine on the flat and now 91 over jumps.  All things being equal, there is just no knowing how good he could be, the peaks he could scale.

There was Bryan Cooper’s ride on Petit Mouchoir.  Cooper’s horse was a little keen up on the outside of Nichols Canyon initially, so he let him stride on, got him settled in front, then kicked off the home turn. 

Pick any of Ruby Walsh’s rides, Min on Monday, Meri Devie on Tuesday, Battleford and Let’s Dance from the front on Thursday, efficiency in simplicity, getting the fractions right. 

That’s A Wrap in the two-mile handicap hurdle on Tuesday.  They got caught in the crowding around the home turn, but the rider didn’t panic, moved towards the outside and delivered his horse with a run that got him up by a half a length.

And Barry Geraghty’s ride on Bleu Et Rouge in the beginners’ chase on Wednesday.  JP McManus’ horse was awkward at the first fence, and that seemed to affect his confidence.  He was slow at the second and the third too, and only gradually warmed up as they raced down the far side. 

Geraghty concentrated on getting him jumping again, instilling confidence, before asking him to race again.  Sometimes you have to play the hand that you are dealt, make the best of the situation in which you find yourself.

It looked like it would be merely an exercise in education however, as the Willie Mullins-trained gelding traded at 65 in-running on the run to the end of the back straight.  The horse jumped the second last fence well, however, and began to build momentum again as they rounded the home turn.  From there, it looked on.  He jumped the last fence well too and stayed on powerfully up the run-in to beat Gangster by a half a length.


Trainers’ championship

The battle between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott for the trainers’ championship is a thread that ran through the Christmas festivals, and it is a thread that will hopefully run through the rest of the season now.

Mullins excelled.  Twenty-two winners over the course of the four days was some haul.  There were Grade 1 winners like Douvan and Saturnas and Min, and there was the 1-2 in the Grade 1 Squared Financial Hurdle with Vroum Vroum Mag and Clondaw Warrior, and if Shaneshill hadn’t fallen at the last it could have been a 1-2-3.  And there were pointers to the future, like Meri Devie and Benie Des Dieux and Bacardys and Bunk Off Early and Battleford and the rest.

Elliott did not have nearly as many winners as Mullins over Christmas, but he had some very important ones.  Noble Endeavor’s win in the Paddy Power Chase means that the Cullentra House trainer has now won five of the top staying handicap chases in the first half of the season, the Paddy Power to go with the Galway Plate, the Kerry National, the Munster National and the Troytown Chase.  That is a remarkable achievement.

There was also Elliott’s Lexus Chase 1-2 with Outlander and Don Poli which netted a total of €117,000 in prize money and means that, at the end of the Christmas festivals, Elliott was still over €200,000 ahead. 

The inexorable Mullins march is on, but the battle could make for compelling viewing.


JP juveniles

The team of juvenile hurdlers that JP McManus has assembled looked strong before Christmas, but it looks even stronger now.  So Housesofparliament and Sword Fighter and Landofhopeandglory got beaten at Leopardstown, but Charli Parcs was really impressive in winning at Kempton, and Defi Du Seuil was even more impressive in winning the Grade 1 Future Champions Finale Hurdle at Chepstow.

It will be interesting to see which routes they all take now, how the owner’s top juveniles are split up, housed, as they are, with three different trainers.  The Fred Winter Hurdle is obviously an option now, although you wouldn’t be giving up yet on Housesofparliament or Landofhopeandglory as Triumph Hurdle candidates yet.  And there is also the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle option, the Binocular option.  Remember that juveniles receive 8lb from their elders in the Supreme.


Change in headgear

When Outlander put up the best performance of his career on Wednesday in winning the Lexus Chase, his rider Jack Kennedy wore the blue Gigginstown House cap.  When the Gordon Elliott-trained gelding put up the second best performance of his career to date in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown two weeks earlier, his rider Davy Russell wore the white cap. 

There may be nothing in this at all, but certain horses seem to respond to different coloured caps.  Cape Cross, for example, excelled in the Godolphin white cap – he won the Queen Anne Stakes, the Celebration Mile and the Lockinge Stakes in the white cap – so much so, in fact, that when he retired to stud, the Cape Cross baseball cap was white with blue writing, not the traditional Darley blue with white writing. 

When Outlander next runs, it might be worth trying him in the red cap or the yellow cap.  He could improve again for a change in headgear.


© The Irish Field, 31st December 2016