As always it’s a been a busy few days for horse racing with the usual array of post-Christmas treats for followers of the sport up and down the country. Here The Gryphon’s resident turf enthusiast John Gibby rounds up the highlights.
It’s a horrible cliche heard in all reaches of sport journalism, but Colin Tizzard truly is the man of the moment. Just a few years ago he was a dairy farmer with a couple of horses – an agricultural man who liked to train thoroughbreds as little more than a hobby. Fast forward to New Year 2017, he finds himself being quoted as at little as 7/2 to dethrone the preeminent Paul Nicholls as Champion Trainer come the end of the season in April. And on Boxing Day it was looking increasingly likely as if he may have found an equine champion of his own, as Thistlecrack scorched up the Kempton turf to take the King George VI Chase, dethroning last year’s winner, stablemate Cue Card, comprehensively in the process.
The first novice to win the prestigious prize, last year’s World Hurdle winner can now be backed at no bigger than 6/5 to take racing’s blue riband, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, at The Festival in March. But that’s not where the opportunities end for Tizzard. As well as getting up to win at Kempton by a nose last December, Cue Card was also travelling perhaps most menacingly of all in the Gold Cup three months later when coming down just a few fences from home. That horse is now joint second favourite for this season’s renewal (alongside 2015 hero Coneygree), but could be rerouted to the shorter Ryanair Chase following a couple of inconsistent showings over three miles so far this year.
Meanwhile, the Welsh edition of perhaps racing’s most famous race took place at Chepstow on Tuesday as twenty top handicappers took on the challenge of the Welsh Grand National. With the favourite, Native River, another Tizzard charge, the result seemed almost written in the stars and any doubts about how the improving son of Indian River would take to the unique test of the course’s 22 fences were blown away as he saw off the late challenge of Raz De Maree to hit the line one and three-quarter lengths to the good under Champion Jockey Richard Johnson. With a further victory for Royal Vacation in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices Chase, Tizzard has closed the gap on Nicholls to only a couple of hundred thousand pounds – tuppence in the context of the ever-changing championship table.
Elsewhere, Alan King’s versatile hurdler Yanworth proved he has the pace for a Champion Hurdle campaign when taking the Kempton Christmas Hurdle, beating two horses who have placed in the former race in the past in the form of The New One and My Tent or Yours. He now finds himself with a very real chance in a weak division of landing the spoils on the opening day of Cheltenham Festival. Juvenile hurdler Defi Du Seuil also increased his spring festival credentials as he took the Finale Juvenile Hurdle on the same card as the Welsh National, while closer to home, the consistent Definitely Red won the Grade 3 feature at Wetherby Racecourse just outside the City of Leeds for Henry Brooke and Brian Ellison.
Over in Ireland, Willie Mullins’ Supreme Novices Hurdle runner-up Min enhanced his credentials for the Arkle Chase with a classy win in the Grade 1 Novices Chase at Leopardstown, while his old rival Altior took the Wayward Lad at Kempton, paving the way for another potential clash between the two exciting young geldings. Also at Leopardstown, last year’s outstanding novice chaser Douvan obliterated the field in the style expected of a 1/8 shot.
It was also a melancholic and reflective time for many racing fans, as Channel 4 bowed out as the sport’s terrestrial broadcaster in the UK after 32 years. During that time, both alone and at times alongside the BBC and ITV, legendary racing broadcasters such as John McCririck, Lord John Oaksey, Derek Thompson and Clare Balding have fronted coverage of everything from Cheltenham to the Derby, the Grand National to Glorious Goodwood. The mantle now passes to the new team at ITV from New Years Day, and as racing fans we will watch with interest to see what new spin they choose to put on presenting this most enthralling of sports to millions of seasoned racegoers and newcomers alike.
Photo Credit: Rex Features