'FORTUNATE' TIZZARD LOOKS FORWARD TO GOLDEN CLASH
Colin Tizzard gave a press conference before racing on Thursday at which he discussed his week so far and talked about his two Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup runners, Cue Card and Native River. The two horses are both 7/2 joint-favourites for The Festival's showcase race with the Willie Mullins-trained Djakadam.
He said: "Thank God that Fox Norton ran his race [he finished second in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday]. The Festival finds out how good your horses are, and my others this week didn't run quite as well as they could, but that's probably as good as they are. We've got the best horses to come, I think."
Asked whether he was concerned that the excellent form his yard has shown throughout the winter would have passed by the time The Festival came round, he replied: "No stable keeps going flat out all year round. We all have little blips and some horses for whatever reason don't run quite as well. If they have won in the autumn they are going up the handicap, and they have had hard races. Nothing keeps going forever, except for the really good ones. The real good Grade One horses seem to be able to hand anything you put at them."
Tizzard compared the relative merits of Cue Card and Native River.
"Native River is an absolute thorough stayer; we wouldn't run Cue Card in the Welsh National [which Native River won this season]," he said. "I don't think there's a lot in them. The handicapper says there is 2lb between them - they know pretty well what's what.
"I was definitely nervous coming into Cheltenham on Tuesday morning - I don't normally get that bad. Now I'm here - after all, it's only a horse race. We've got to get it all in perspective, really. I'm in a very fortunate position to have these two lovely horses, so we've got to make sure I enjoy it and that we do the best by these two.
"We've always thought Native River wanted better ground; last year's heavy ground was heavier than any we have experienced before. This winter it has been soft ground. We flipped with Cue Card [as to his ground preferences] - when he was an eight-year-old we used to think he was a real good ground, spring, Cheltenham Festival-type of horse. He won the Champion Bumper here, and the Ryanair on watered ground, so I'm not going to say that any ground is going to affect either of them. That won't be one of our excuses.
"We had it in our mind last year that, after his Gold Cup fall, that was Cue Card's chance gone. We purposely didn't let him have too long out in the field last summer - we kept a degree of fitness on him the whole time - and he's come out really well this year. He's as good as he has ever been, I think.
"Richard Johnson [who rides Native River] thinks Native River has got the full range of gears. He'll probably need them - Cue Card has been, and still is, a really good Grade One horse. I don't think he is wilting at all yet. We daren't gallop the two of them together, that's for sure."
Asked whether Cue Card is the horse closest to Tizzard's heart, the trainer replied: "When [Tizzard's son, now his assistant trainer] Joe rode him here in the Champion Bumper [in 2010], I've never had a pain in the back of my neck like that. He bolted up - I've never experienced that type of emotion before or since, and he's kept on doing it for seven seasons. We've had downers with him - he missed two Festivals, one with a trapped epiglottis and one with a stress fracture - but only little problems. Luckily he's been good enough to come through and carry on where he left off."
Asked how life has changed since he moved to the top of the training ranks, Tizzard said: "You get a bit disappointed when your phone doesn't keep ringing! If you have a day when no one rings you up, you think, 'bloody hell, I must be gone', so I don't mind. If the phone doesn't ring, you know you haven't got any decent horses. It's not about me, it's all about the horses we've got in the yard now - and about making sure that continues. There's a good one in the sales here tonight and we've got to make sure in the next couple of hours that we can get one of our owners to buy it, because that's the future."
Tizzard commented on Cue Card's fall in last year's Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, saying: "The Gold Cup is a very big strain on an owner, a trainer, a horse and a jockey. I'm sure if Paddy [Brennan, Cue Card's jockey] had his time again, he wouldn't have been where he was at that time. But four fences before, Cue Card was off the bridle not going anywhere. Then a gap opened and the horse took off and went in there. None of us thought Cue Card would fall; he's always been a neat, accurate jumper - he's a cat really. At the time I was just glad he got up - it was a horrible fall."
The possibility of Cue Card retiring after the Gold Cup was raised, and Tizzard said firmly: "It's something I don't want to talk about. If he was on the wane, we would stop, but he's not. He's as good as he was four years ago. When we turn him out in the summer, after a fortnight he's stood at the gate wanting to come back in. He's only 11; we don't need to talk about retirement."
He gave an update on the injured Thistlecrack, saying: "We've got to make sure we get him right for next season. It's only a very small injury, but we are in the middle of March - next season isn't very far away. Nature cures everything, and we can help nature a long a bit. The swelling is gone and he trotted out sound the other morning. With racehorses, especially big horses, there is strain put on their tendons, running and jumping carrying weight at speed. I see no reason why he shouldn't be back at Christmas."
HARRY OUT TO SHOW BOOKIES EXACTLY WHAT HE MEANS
Punters are certainly licking their wounds at the halfway stage of this year's Cheltenham Festival as bookmakers again had the better of things on the second day, Ladies Day, of the 2017 Festival. A number of big-priced winners, coupled with the shock defeat of 2/9 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase favourite Douvan, gave the bookies the upper hand on a day where RSA Novices' Chase winner Might Bite (7/2) was the only favourite to oblige.
However, punters are unperturbed and have supported a number of horses for the third day of The Festival, St Patrick's Day.
In the feature race, the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle (3.30pm), the Harry Fry-trained Unowhatimeanharry is a warm order for the three-mile hurdling showpiece and is available at odds of 6/4 with the race sponsors. The firm have also reported each way support for the 2014 Stan James Champion Hurdle winner Jezki, who is 7/1 from 8/1.
The Irish will hope lady luck is on their side in the first race, the Grade One JLT Novices' Chase (1.30pm), as Willie Mullins remarkably attempts to gain his first winner of the week at Prestbury Park with Andrea & Graham Wylie's Yorkhill. Winner of the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle at last year's Festival, the seven-year-old son of Presenting is unbeaten in two starts over fences and is the 6/4 favourite with Sun Bets. The same firm have also reported money for Nigel Twiston-Davies' Flying Angel who is now 12/1 from 16/1.
In the ultra-competitive Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle (2.10pm), Tom George's Rocklander is attracting each way support and is into 16/1 from 20/1 with Sun Bets.
Despite concerns over the ground, last year's Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase second Un De Sceaux, trained by Mullins, is a popular favourite in the Grade One Ryanair Chase (2.50pm). The nine-year-old son of Denham Red has constricted in price with Sun Bets into 9/4 from 11/4.
Robin Dickin's Thomas Crapper was a facile winner at Newbury last time and is the one for money in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate (4.10pm). The Tamure gelding is 8/1 from 9/1 with Sun Bets.
Neil Mulholland is also targeting a first victory of the week at Prestbury Park. He saddles Southfield Royale in the concluding race of the day, the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Amateur Riders' Handicap (5.30pm). Sun Bets have made the imposing seven-year-old son of Presenting 8/1 from 9/1.
Reflecting on yesterday's action, in particular Douvan's shock defeat, Sun Bets representative Tim Reynolds said: "You don't want to see a fantastic animal like Douvan get beat but obviously he didn't run his race and it was good for the bookmakers to see him beaten. In the first race, Neon Wolf was heavily backed and was just run out of it by Willoughby Court so no doubt, they were two really good results."
Looking ahead to today's racing, Reynolds commented: "Unowhatimeanharry is a very strong favourite and to be fair, he has been strong in the market for this race all season. Harry Fry has done an incredible job with him and of course, he won the Albert Bartlett last year so there is no reason he can't win the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle this year as he sets the standard in this race.
"Yorkhill is also pretty solid in the market but with Willie Mullins yet to have a winner at The Festival at the halfway stage, there will be plenty of people who will want to take him on, especially as there has been question marks over his jumping."
1.30pm JLT Novices' Chase - 12/1 from 16/1 - Flying Angel (Sun Bets)
2.10pm Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle - 16/1 from 20/1 - Rocklander (Sun Bets)
2.50pm Ryanair Chase - 9/4 from 11/4 - Un De Sceaux (Sun Bets)
3.30pm Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle - 7/1 from 8/1 - Jezki (Sun Bets)
4.10pm Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate - 8/1 from 9/1 - Thomas Crapper (Sun Bets)
5.30 Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Amateur Riders' Handicap - 8/1 from 9/1 - Southfield Royale (Sun Bets).