Sensational Thistlecrack powers to King George glory at Kempton
Thistlecrack produced an incredible performance to run out a brilliant winner of the 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton.
The dominant force in the staying hurdle division last season and unbeaten in just three previous starts over fences, the Colin Tizzard-trained eight-year-old was sent off the 11-10 favourite to see off four rivals which included his stable companion and last year's winner Cue Card (5-4).
Dual King George hero Silviniaco Conti took the quintet along in the early stages, before Thistlecrack pulled his way to the front in the hands of Tom Scudamore.
Paddy Brennan was alive to the move aboard Cue Card and moved into second to set up the battle many had hoped for.
However, Thistlecrack found another gear rounding the home turn, leaving his stablemate and the rest of the field trailing in his wake.
The bold-jumping market leader safely negotiated the remaining obstacles and a jubilant Scudamore punched the air as his mount passed the post three and a quarter lengths to the good.
It was a close thing for second, with Cue Card just holding the late rally of Silviniaco Conti.
Scudamore said: "For the first time in my life I'm pretty speechless. It's wonderful - I thought he'd win, but I never imagined he'd do it as easy as that.
"He's a phenomenal racehorse, he's a pleasure to ride and a great credit to everyone. To win a King George on his fourth run over fences, it just shows the hard work everyone back at the yard has done and I'm so thrilled to be part of it."
He added: "Between myself, my father (Peter) and grandfather (Michael) we've had about 33,000 winners and he's the best one of the lot."
Connections of Thistlecrack kept punters guessing for a while as to which Kempton race he would contest, with the Kauto Star Novices' Chase an apparently easier option.
On the decision to go for King George glory, part-owner Heather Snook said: "It wasn't that hard actually, because he had to take on the big boys sooner rather than later. Tom was happy, we were happy and Colin was happy, so we let him take his chance. We're very lucky people."
Tizzard revealed the decision on his festive target had been made some time ago.
"As soon as I made the entry we knew which way we were going to go, although we sort of pretended we didn't," said the Dorset-based trainer.
"He's not a five or six-year-old, he is eight and he'll be nine in a few days' time. He's at the peak of his powers and he's just proved we all got it right."
Reflecting on the mesmerising display, he added: "It's quite frightening to watch, isn't it? When Cue Card went up beside Thistlecrack six or eight (fences) out, I thought 'goodness me'. It's a very fickle world we live in.
"We've all seen Thistlecrack for the last few years, he's had his biggest test and he's a brilliant horse.
"When he was long he was standing off and Tom was being a bit careful at the second-last and he shortened up almost like a show jumper - he never touched a twig. He's got everything you'd want in a racehorse.
"Cue Card could have cried enough at the last, but he stuck his head out and finished second, so it's brilliant."
Thistlecrack will likely bid to cement his Cheltenham Gold Cup claims in the Cotswold Chase at Prestbury Park on January 28, but Cue Card could head straight for the blue riband.
"I suspect you'll see Thistlecrack in the race at Cheltenham, I would have thought, just for experience really," said Tizzard.
"Cue Card is nearly 11 and perhaps we'll leave him for the Gold Cup, but that could change."
Brennan was magnanimous in defeat.
He said: "You want to win, but some things are impossible and trying to beat that racehorse today was one of the most impossible things I've ever tried to do.
"You can make all the excuses in the world, but it's a long time since I've ridden against a horse like that.
"Cue Card was really brave today and I'm really proud of him. The ground was lively enough for him at times. I didn't want to be knocking him about after the last, but he stuck his neck out and hung on for second."
Looking ahead to a potential rematch in the Gold Cup, the jockey added: "It would be nice, but I'm very realistic and we'd need a lot of things to go right on the day. But on a bit softer ground, I won't give up hope."
Paul Nicholls was proud of the performance of Silviniaco Conti, who was beaten just a short head to the runner-up spot.
He said: "That was probably one of his best runs in the last year or two. Another stride and he would have been second.
"He has just lost that little bit of pace. He stayed on really strongly and kept at it all the way through. If you are talking about Aintree, what a Grand National trial."
The soon-to-be 11-year-old could now bid for back-to-back victories in February's Ascot Chase.
"Two-mile-five might be sharp enough for him but if the ground was like it was last year, then on that run that is where he is highly likely to go," Nicholls added.
"You could nearly go to Punchestown and keep him fresh for that and let the others scrap it out at Aintree and Cheltenham. I still say there is a big one in him."