Opposed by just three outclassed opponents, Thistlecrack duly hacked up at Cheltenham yesterday but he had his moments. Fences are the challenge, risk is the draw, and not even the most straightforward of tasks for this the most exciting horse in training had a guarantee about it.
Last year Thistlecrack clearly established himself as the best equine athlete in the Islands but that was over hurdles. So complete was his dominance that he was made favourite for next March’s Cheltenham Gold Cup before he had jumped a fence in public. When he coasted home at Chepstow two weeks ago, there was a tendency to already hail him as the finished article. Yesterday’s very first fence showed that the word ‘Novice’ is used for a reason.
Up in the saddle Tom Scudamore sent this fine big beau ideal of the jumping horse in on an even stride but, without encouragement, Thistlecrack threw in so massive a leap that you could see a full metre of daylight between his belly and the birch. It’s fine to be exuberant when you are on the right stride but danger lurks when you are not. Three fences later at the open ditch Thistlecrack lifted off far too early and for an awful mini second it looked as if he wouldn’t make it.
In fact he got there at the cost of dropping his hind legs on the birch and drawing a gasp from the enraptured crowd. The next ditch drew another gasp at another ludicrously long leap and back in the stands trainer Colin Tizzard was wishing he had got the excessive buzz out of the horse with a couple of extra schooling sessions.
With so limited an opposition Thistlecrack’s eminence meant that the most minor of aberrations would be magnified many times over. Thankfully there was nothing too dramatic for the rest of the three mile, twenty-fence journey and while the final impression was of a mighty talent with a bit to learn, there were also clear signs of an emerging sense of self-preservation which will have brought joy to the hearts Tizzard and Scudamore.
Coming down the hill for the final time, Thistlecrack’s stride took him too close. An ignorant horse would have galloped slap into the fence and paid the penalty. But the penny dropped in the eight-year old’s head because he lifted himself high and over. He will need to perfect this to cope with the pressure of experienced horses beside him and so it was no surprise to hear the ever sensible Tizzard say that further public tuition will now be scheduled at Newbury in a fortnight’s time and that at Kempton over Christmas it will be the novice Feltham Chase as the target rather than the infinitely more competitive King George VI Chase.
Of course all this is getting ahead of things but there is nothing better in jump racing, and few things superior in all sport, than the frisson of excitement that a potentially brilliant steeplechaser can bring. It is doubly fortunate that in Tom Scudamore he has the most eloquent of current jockeys to share the experience. “It often happens like this,” Tom explained with a smile. “He did it all brilliantly first time and so today he thought he was a big boy and a couple of early times tried to do the almost impossible. But the further he has gone the better he has jumped and I am sure he will improve for the experience. It may be a boring cliché but today was about getting the job done.”
The other races on the card showed both how hazardous and how glorious the jockey’s task can be. As hazards go few things are worse than the loose horse in front of you that changes its mind. In the race after Thistlecrack’s, the riderless Le Reve had been sailing blithely round in front of the pack before suddenly running across the 12th fence and threatening to wipe out the field as another loose horse so famously did in the ‘Foinavon Grand National’ of 1967.
Amazingly it was just three jockeys who were hurled in the air and despite Le Reve being knocked clean through the fence all two legged and four legged participants emerged without serious injury. Not so lucky was Le Reve’s rider Nico de Boinville who was taken to hospital with a shoulder injury and his chances of teaming up with his Gold Cup winning partner Coneygree in next Saturday’s Betfair Chase must now be in doubt.
No doubting the courage of Taquin Du Seuil who thrust out his neck with relentless determination to nail the front running Village Vic in the closing strides of the featured Bet Victor Gold Cup. Taquin Du Seuil has been a good horse in his time and his ten victories have included the JLT Novices at the 2014 Cheltenham festival. But he has nothing of Thistlecrack’s majestic physique and sweeping stride relying instead on a heart big enough to scrap his way to glory.
“In the middle of the race we were struggling and it was just a salvage operation” said Aidan Coleman, who like trainer Jonjo O’Neill was ending three winner-less weeks. “But he kept picking off a rival here and there and after the last was brilliant.” Coleman may be an impossible 42 winners adrift of Village Vic’s rider Richard Johnson in the race for this year’s championship, but at 28, eleven year’s Johnson’s junior, he remains one of the likeliest contenders when the old wolf finds it harder to kill.