The biggest oohs and aahs on the entertainment scene this winter were nothing to do with the ‘He’s behind you ...oh no he isn’t’ of pantomime. They were the collective gasps of astonishment from 21,000 spectators at Kempton Park on Boxing Day as Thistlecrack, a novice steeplechaser in only his fourth race over the big fences, took on two previous winners of the King George VI Chase and beat them hollow. He beat them not just because of the massive engine within his spectacular frame but thanks to the sheer majesty of his explosive jumping, often taking off far beyond the wings of the fences and soaring over them as if they were matchwood.
As the spectacle began to unfold, most of us in the crowd started jumping every obstacle alongside him, our stomachs lurching with anxiety in case a Wicked Witch or Baron Hardup should intervene to end the fairy tale. Thistlecrack’s popular jockey, the cool Tom Scudamore (well, cool until he burst into understandable tears after the winning post), noted after the race that he, his father Peter and his grandfather Michael had ridden more than 3,000 horses between them to victory over jumps and that Thistlecrack was without any doubt the best.
Jump racing needs a constant stream of stars to renew its appeal, stars as bright as Golden Miller, Desert Orchid, Best Mate and Kauto Star: in Thistlecrack we have a horse that will give the jumping scene its allure for the next few years. Just as Kauto Star and Denman in their prime occupied adjoining boxes in Paul Nicholls’s yard, Thistlecrack has now perhaps usurped the title of ‘the people’s horse’ from his stablemate Cue Card. The latest duo, too, come from a yard that represents the true heartbeat of jump racing.
Trainer Colin Tizzard, wife Pauline, daughter Kim and ex-jockey son Joe once had a dairy farm in the Thomas Hardy country of the Blackmore Vale where they kept a few horses. Father and son value both sides of the operation, but now, alongside the dairying that is their insurance in an uncertain world, the Tizzards train 85 horses on Venn Farm’s steep gallops. Theirs has been a world of hanging pheasants and rumbling agricultural machinery, of Pony Club and point-to-points, but in days when big-money owners and a few fashionable yards increasingly accumulate the biggest prizes Colin Tizzard could quite conceivably train the first three home in this season’s Gold Cup. Thistlecrack, last year’s World Hurdle winner, is now the short-priced favourite. But lining up against him could be his stablemate Cue Card, winner of this season’s Betfair Chase and last year’s King George. Then there is Native River. Having already won the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, he was sent out by the Tizzards the day after the King George to land the Welsh Grand National under a massive top weight of 11st 12lb.
Appropriately for a man attuned to the rhythms of the countryside, and with a farmer’s realism underlining every sentence he utters, the Tizzards’ advance has not been an overnight success. True, Colin finished fourth in last season’s trainer’s table but before that he had never come higher than tenth. And it hasn’t all come easily. Joe was first hailed as a teenage prodigy in his jockey days but was then discarded early as Paul Nicholls’s stable jockey when owners wanted more experience. He broke his back in a bad fall and nearly lost his life in an accident after a hay baler sliced his head open. But the enterprise built steadily thanks to owners who were mostly fellow farmers or friends, unpretentious people such as Cue Card’s shrewd owners Jean Bishop and her late husband Bob, who celebrated their first Cheltenham Festival success with a 10 p.m. sandwich in a Tesco car park. With a chuckle Tizzard senior dismisses talk of him becoming the next champion trainer, arguing that contestants need a hundred more horses than he has. But, seeing the twinkle in his eye, I backed him anyway at 7–1 for this year’s title soon after powerful owners Ann and Alan Potts transferred 15 horses to Venn Farm. Many were ‘Saturday horses’ capable of winning well-endowed races and the title is determined not by numbers of winners but by prize money won.
Even as we celebrate Thistlecrack’s remarkable victory we should toast, too, an absent friend, another novice who made an extraordinary breakthrough. In March 2015 Coneygree, trained in the little Letcombe Bassett yard of Mark and Sara Bradstock, had his fourth outing over fences and equally spectacularly galloped his rivals into submission in the Gold Cup itself. Forced by injury to miss the 2016 renewal, he returned after a year out to be beaten by Cue Card in the Betfair. Much of the ability was clearly still there but he had to miss the King George after appearing off colour at home. The race I want to see in 2017 is a Gold Cup that pitches a fully fit Coneygree against a perfectly tuned Thistlecrack — on ground that also gives Cue Card one last opportunity of winning the big one.