Right on Cue: the time has come for Tizzard great to state Gold Cup case
Stuart Riley savours a crucial afternoon for elite Cheltenham Festival hopefuls
Today is not the day to which, in 30 years' time, minds with the capacity to remember Cue Card will jump, but if he were to win next month's Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup and solidify his place in the pantheon of all-time greats, it could well be the day those closest to him mark as the making of his crowning glory.
Such is Colin Tizzard's dominance of the Friday feature that Cue Card, who this time last year would have been heavy odds-on if betting had existed on the horse to give the trainer his first win in the race, lines up in the Grade 1 Betfair Ascot Chase (3.35) as something of a forgotten horse, overlooked and underappreciated, with an air of he can only do his chances more harm than good.
Since his Betfair Chase win, his eighth Grade 1 success some six and a half years after his first, Britain's most popular horse in training has been somewhat overshadowed by his very own noisy neighbours – Thistlecrack and Native River – who live one and two boxes down at Venn Farm.
The 'you're only as good as your last run' brigade have already written off Cue Card, his King George defeat offered as proof age is starting to catch up with him, but those who cannot forget the way he left Paddy Brennan pounding the turf after departing three out when looking the winner in last year's Gold Cup will understand the importance of his Ascot assignment.
The amount of time off between his King George win and Cheltenham fall has been put forward as a reason for his uncharacteristically sloppy jumping in the Gold Cup and the main purpose of this exercise is to try to ensure he brings his A game next month, while the drop back to 2m5f is also designed to rev him up and put a bit of speed back into his racing. The Gold Cup cannot be lost at Ascot, but come 3.40pm on March 17 his ruby-cheeked and chuckling trainer could well be telling us in his farmer's twang that this was when it was won.
While a good run from Cue Card is likely to have more of an impact on his Cheltenham chances than the ante-post market, the Stan James Champion Hurdle betting is certain to look very different come Saturday evening – although the favourite is sure to be shorter than the current 7-2 and owned by JP McManus.
Buveur D'Air's position at the head of the market is under threat from both Alan King's first-time-cheekpieced Yanworth, who heads to Wincanton for the Kingwell, and Jessica Harrington's Jezki, who is in action in the Red Mills at Gowran Park.
Victory for both and Rich Ricci may as well hand McManus the trophy and anything decisive by either should see them usurp his Buveur D'Air – based on far more solid, and recent, form claims.
Should the Christmas Hurdle and former Champion Hurdle winners both disappoint, or different targets be announced, Buveur D'Air will likely shorten for standing in his box.
The Grand National has been in the headlines this week, with BHA handicapper Phil Smith taking a pummeling for handing out more sweeties to some than others. And at Haydock Nigel Twiston-Davies's RSA Chase winner Blaklion, fresh from a spell on the sidelines to protect his handicap mark in the hope of a handful of said sweeties, has been backed this week as if he has instead copped off with the jar.
Haydock's undercard also features the talented Don Bersy in the Victor Ludorum, a clash between Zarkandar, Agrapart and Aux Ptits Soins in the Rendlesham, a Grade 2 Albert Bartlett trial won a few years back by Brindisi Breeze and a Pertemps qualifier in which all ten would need to go up to actually get a run.
There are potential clues at Ascot too. National Hunt Chase second favourite Arpege D'Alene attempts to advance his claims in the Reynoldstown and Nicky Henderson gives more experience to the only once-raced hurdler in either the Supreme or Neptune with a higher rating than Melon, eight-year-old Beyond Conceit, whose promising Flat career ended three and a half years before his hurdling debut last month.
Saturday is the last of the big trials days before next month's madness and, in terms of both popularity and importance, Tizzard has saved his best until last.