Tizzard trump Card the unlikely hero

Tizzard trump Card the unlikely hero

In the space of a couple of months, Cue Card has confounded the critics to plant himself firmly in the picture for Cheltenham Gold Cup glory.

Not many pundits would have been willing to pin their hopes of a Triple Crown being landed by Cue Card this season when we started out on the road to Cheltenham.

The revived £1m bonus payout was hastily rolled out in the run-up to Haydock's Betfair Chase and, for most observers, it appeared as something of a dangling carrot to attract the might of Willie Mullins' string to British shores throughout the season. Vautour was the talking horse before Mullins elected to skip Haydock and instead Cue Card emerged from the shadows. Off colour for most of last season, Cue Card's loyal and sizeable army of followers had their faith well and truly tested.

Returning for the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in October, a leap of faith was needed to imagine Cue Card adding two Grade One wins to victory in that race and, in doing so, positioning himself as the outstanding British contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

While his bloodless Haydock success in November may have been the standout performance visually, it was the manner of his King George success on Boxing Day that did most to advertise Cue Card as a genuine contender to record a third Cheltenham Festival success in five attempts.

With Vautour seemingly about to canter to Kempton success, Cue Card and Paddy Brennan – the jockey with whom the ten-year-old has quickly struck a dazzling understanding this season – knuckled down to make a fight of it and duly stuck their neck out for victory in the shadow of the posts.

Stamina is the one criteria upon which the former Cheltenham Champion Bumper and Ryanair Chase winner has been constantly marked down. Admirable, determined and honest, Cue Card was – seemingly unfairly – pigeon-holed as a non-stayer at three-miles. After a year in the doldrums, Colin Tizzard has done a remarkable job in bringing this much-loved horse back to his very best, perhaps even scaling previously unheralded heights. In Brennan, Cue Card has a Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning jockey who has developed supreme faith in his equine partner. While Cue Card may sit behind the likes of Djakadam, Don Poli and Don Cossack in the Gold Cup betting, there is no doubting Brennan believes the dream is on.

How would Cue Card have fared had Don Cossack had Gordon Elliott's charge cleared the second last in the King George? Will the extra two furlongs at Cheltenham play into the hands of the dour stayer Don Poli? Can Djakadam defy the stats and claim Gold Cup glory having already had a failed attempt? These are all questions that Cue Card must answer on Friday 18th March. While there is sure to be a carnival atmosphere on St Patrick's Day at Cheltenham on the Thursday, Cue Card will be leading the home challenge as he bids to become an unlikely Gold Cup hero and deny the Irish a second blue riband success in three years.

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Cheltenham Countdown

The countdown to the 2016 Cheltenham Festival is on and we’ll be posting big-race previews every week as we build up to the biggest four days in the National Hunt calendar.

Ante-post markets for the Cheltenham Festival are dominated by Willie Mullins-trained runners and the first of the four-day bonanza looks set to be dominated by the Closutton handler, who saddles no less than four red-hot favourites.

Min, Douvan, Faugheen and Annie Power (or Vroum Vroum Mag) could all have the bookies running for cover and the Mullins’ machine can inflict further damage on the layers when Un De Sceaux lines up for the Queen Mother Champion Chase the following day.

Mullins looks likely to launch a three-pronged attack on Friday’s Gold Cup with Djakadam, Don Poli and Vautour all major players for the showpiece event.