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Christmas review

Thistlecrack was the headline act of the post-Christmas racing scene, and he did not disappoint.  Colin Tizzard’s horse eased his way to victory in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Monday, thereby consolidating his position as Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite.

Thistlecrack is a novice, and novices simply do not win the King George.  Actually, novices do not run in the King George.  Before he lined up in Monday’s race, Thistlecrack had run just three times over fences in his life. 

It was a bold decision by the Tizzards and by owners John and Heather Snook to pitch one with such limited experience into the white-hot heat of a King George, to eschew the easier pickings that were readily available in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Chase, confined to novices, and it was a decision over which they deliberated for weeks.  In the end, they were brave, and fortune favoured them.

You can pick holes in the substance of Thistlecrack’s performance, you can point to the fact that his main rival, stable companion Cue Card, probably under-performed, and that the winning time was not overly impressive, but you could not pick holes in the style.  The Kayf Tara gelding travelled with the ease of a top class National Hunt racehorse, his jumping was good and he won with more in hand than the three-and-a-quarter-length winning margin.  He is deserving of his place at the top of the Gold Cup market.

The Gold Cup picture changed around Thistlecrack too during the week.  Firstly, trainer Mark Bradstock reported that Coneygree was in a race against time to get to the Gold Cup and that the plan is now to go there without a prep run.  Then Native River won the Welsh National at Chepstow on Tuesday.  Then Outlander won the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown on Wednesday, beating Don Poli and Djakadam and Valseur Lido.

Native River was very good in the Welsh National.  True, Colin Tizzard’s horse was 8lb well-in according to the official handicapper, but he still carried 11st 12lb to victory in one of the toughest handicap chases on the racing calendar.  The last horse to carry more than 11 stone to victory in the Welsh National was Synchronised, and he went on to win the Gold Cup 14 months later.

Native River does not have the obvious class that his stable companion Thistlecrack has, but he does have guts and courage, and he has stamina in abundance, and those attributes are essential components of a Gold Cup contender’s arsenal. 

Also, he is progressive, he has just turned seven today, and his last two runs – victories in Hennessy Gold Cup and now in the Welsh National – are the two best runs of his life.  He could improve again between now and March.

Outlander could also improve again.  Certainly, the Gigginstown House horse put up the best performance of his career to date in winning the Lexus Chase under the excellent teenager Jack Kennedy, who was recording his 100th winner and his first Grade 1 victory.  Significantly, this was just Outlander’s second attempt at a distance in excess of two and a half miles over fences, and he seemed to appreciate the step back up in trip.

The Gordon Elliott-trained gelding has been busy this season so far, this was his fourth run of the term, but this is just his second season over fences and he continues to progress.  He is probably going to have to progress further if he is going to win a Gold Cup, but that is more than possible.

You can allow Djakadam this defeat, given that he was racing just 17 days after he had had to dig deep to win the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown on his seasonal debut.  That may just not have been enough.  Trainer Willie Mullins expressed mild concerns about the relatively quick turnaround beforehand, and those concerns were ultimately well-founded.  Susannah Ricci’s horse did not run up to his best.

Remember that Djakadam has finished second in two Gold Cups now, including in last year’s, when he had an interrupted preparation, he needed stitches in his chest after he fell in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in January.  He is deserving of another chance.

It is more difficult to allow Valseur Lido this defeat.  He did everything right for Bryan Cooper, he travelled into the race well and he arrived there at the last fence looking the most likely winner.  He just finished weakly.

Owner Michael O’Leary said afterwards that the Anzillero gelding probably didn’t stay, and that may well be the case, despite the fact that he is a dual Grade 1 winner over three miles.  Perhaps three miles in a Lexus Chase at Leopardstown in December is different to three miles in a Growise Novice Chase at Punchestown in April.  He could be re-routed to the Ryanair Chase, but it may be that he will be given another chance to stake his Gold Cup claim, perhaps in the Irish Gold Cup back at Leopardstown in February.

Douvan was his usual brilliant self in the Grade 1 Paddy Power Cashcard Chase at Leopardstown on Tuesday, but it appears that all Gold Cup talk is frivolous.  Trainer Willie Mullins said afterwards that there was no need to step him up in trip, not this season anyway, and that makes a lot of sense.  All things being equal and barring anything untoward, it is difficult to see what will beat Douvan in the Champion Chase. 

Intriguingly, however, the Irish champion trainer did not rule out a step up in trip for Douvan later in his career, perhaps next season.  Thistlecrack v Douvan: that would be worth the wait. 


© The Sunday Times, 1st January 2017