Cheltenham: Father and son team face new hurdle
Cheltenham has no definitive accent. It would not be the same without the Irish, naturally, but theirs is just one voice in a polyphony that obtains a different register, race to race.
And when the starter mounts his rostrum for the first time tomorrow, you may well detect a different kind of brogue in the exultant roar from the grandstands. For the Stan James Supreme Novices' Hurdle may set the tone for what follows.
Over the past couple of decades the West Country has become the heartbeat of British jump racing. This time it is not just the big Somerset stables that suggest more toasts may be drunk in cider than stout. On the opening day there is also the fairytale mare, Sparky May; and, in its very first race, punters from every point of the compass will be banking on a father and son based on a dairy farm just over the county border in Dorset.
These days, admittedly, Colin and Joe Tizzard are closer to Goliath than David. Each season their resources and results grow more significant. Unmistakably, however, their breakthrough horse is Cue Card. After annihilating his rivals for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at last year's Festival, the way he won his first two starts over hurdles in the autumn tempted Colin to train him for the Champion Hurdle itself.
Then he was beaten here in December by Menorah, winner of the novice championship at the Festival last year and Cue Card instead returns as hot favourite for the same race.
There could be few better ways of preparing for the week than with Tizzard Jr last Friday. In the evening, he would join a high-spirited panel at “the alternative Festival preview” in the guildhall at Chard.
Joe was accompanied by Tom Malone, nowadays plying his trade as a bloodstock agent and Mattie Batchelor, the most notorious practical joker in the weighing room. First he took time between rides at his local track, Wincanton, to reflect on Cue Card's gallop here a few days previously.
“He did a brilliant piece of work,” Tizzard said. “He loved every second. It lit him up a bit, but that's what we wanted. He has been quite a long time at home, doing the same thing and it got the freshness out of him.”
Tizzard admits that even he was taken aback by the manner of his success last year.
“We knew we had a lovely horse, the best young one we'd ever had,” he said. “People kept telling us how four-year-olds struggle in that race and he did very much look his age in the paddock beforehand. I remember dad saying that whatever happened, we wanted a horse at the end of it.”
Though he lost his unbeaten record honourably enough, the way Cue Card had travelled against Menorah made his finish seem curiously tepid. All in all, he left the impression that he might show a sharper edge on another day.
“Not taking anything away from Menorah, but we think there's more there — that we can have him better than we did that day,” Tizzard confirmed.
“We had missed a couple of works due to the snow. Normally, when he travels like that, he picks up and he didn't that day.
“When I went for him to quicken he hit a bit of a flat spot, but he did dig deep to hold onto second and it probably taught him a lot anyway.”
Cue Card will start hot favourite, regardless and his jockey acknowledges corresponding excitement at home.
“There's a lot of pressure, obviously,” Tizzard said. “And we know how things can go wrong. We had Hell's Bay going there with a big chance, as well, but unfortunately he's out now.”
At just shy of six feet, Tizzard has always been unfeasibly tall for a jockey, but nowadays he takes everything in that long stride of his. It is now 12 years since he won the Arkle Trophy, aged just 19, on Flagship Uberalles. That maiden Festival success crowned his sensational emergence as a conditional jockey, when fast-tracked as stable jockey to Paul Nicholls.
Within three years, however, Tizzard had not only lost that position, his entire career seemed menaced when he broke his back in a terrible fall. The process of regrouping, in step with the expansion of the family stable, naturally proved gradual and incorporated another adjustment of perspective in 2008, when he was fortunate not to be killed by a baling machine.
“It was my own stupid fault,” he said. “It was a split-second, but I was terribly lucky to get away with it. I crawled out with my head cut open. It was a frightening experience.”
One way or another, Tizzard approaches tomorrow in suitably seasoned fashion.
“It all happened for me at a very young age,” he admitted. “Winning an Arkle — it didn't really sink in at the time — but 11 years without another Festival winner makes you realise how difficult they are to get. I think I ride far better now.
“People say I got the chance too young, but the way I look at it, I learnt things — both as a jockey and from what Paul did with the horses — we use every day of the week. I've learned heaps through the years and hope I'm a better jockey and a better person for it.”