Ben Linfoot: Cue the Thistle RSA chat?

Ben Linfoot wonders if Cue Card's £1million bonus hunt might alter the course of Thistlecrack's season in this week's column.

Cue Card: Could he force Thistlecrack down a different path?

Could bonus chat effect Thistlecrack route?

Just when Jumps racing needed a good news story, the coruscating Cue Card leapt out of the Haydock gloom and reminded everyone – including stablemate Thistlecrack – that he remains the best of British in the staying chasers division.

With his King George foe from last year, Vautour, sadly no longer with us, and the reigning Gold Cup champion, Don Cossack, still on the sidelines, the Irish challenge is looking weaker this time around, with the Cheltenham Gold Cup in mind at least, and it could well be that this is Cue Card's year.

The story of Cue Card is an uplifting and inspiring one, but when he fell at the third from home in last year's Gold Cup it looked like the chapter relating to the blue riband race would end on a sad sentence. Rising 11 years old, it seemed his chance had passed. Now I'm not so sure.

His performance on Saturday, against the returning Coneygree, who promises to be a lead character in this part of the Cue Card story, was at least the equal of anything he'd ever done before. His win in this race last season, that King George, his Betfred Bowl at Aintree.

With 33 battles under his belt over the last six years, he would be forgiven for showing signs of regression. Such a point was raised after his defeat at Wetherby on his seasonal reappearance, but the excuses given for that performance look more viable now. Perhaps he wasn't happy on the ground, perhaps Paddy Brennan went too soon. Most likely, I think, was that he just needed the run.

And, Coneygree apart, the two British-trained horses that are closest to him in the Gold Cup ante-post lists both reside in his yard. Thistlecrack, the swashbuckling novice who reminded us all at Cheltenham that he is still learning his trade, is generally 7/2, half the price of Cue Card who is a best of 7/1. Native River, the Hennessy favourite, is 25/1 in places for the Gold Cup as well.

Isn't it extraordinary how often National Hunt racing seems to throw together the game's superstars in the same yard?

Mill House and Mandarin. Arkle and Flyingbolt. Bregawn and Silver Buck (and Badsworth Boy, Captain John, Wayward Lad and Ashley House). Kauto Star and Denman (and Master Minded, Big Buck's and Neptune Collonges). All of those Willie Mullins superstars.

And now Cue Card and Thistlecrack.

Yet I do wonder if the way Cue Card's season goes will have a bearing on the path Thistlecrack might take. Asked on Sunday what it would be like to have the first two in the betting for the Gold Cup, Tizzard replied: "It would be lovely!"

But would it be lovely to have a horse in with a shot of winning the £1million Jockey Club Racecourses bonus for the Betfair-King George-Gold Cup triple whammy, while seeing his main threat in a stable nearby each morning? Probably, yes. But wouldn't it be lovelier to win the cool million and the RSA Chase? I'm sure discussions will, at least, be had.

It would be an easy conversation if Thistlecrack was a couple of years younger. But at eight, rising nine, he's in his prime and it's no wonder all of the chat has been about an ambitious Gold Cup bid in his novice chasing season.

But Cue Card is proof that experience is not a negative in the staying chasing game. The way he bounded away from Coneygree on Saturday was a sight to behold. He's the hot King George favourite now, but he should be Gold Cup jolly on the back of that, too. There is no doubt.

And while there are not millions of reasons why Thistlecrack should seek an alternative route at the Festival, there might well be one reason worth a million. The King George-Thistlecrack talk soon went luke-warm following his Cheltenham outing. Another novicey mistake here, a Cue Card Kempton win there, and the Gold Cup chat could cool very quickly too.

Black Friday

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Good meetings are likelier to get longer than shorter these days, but Newbury have bucked the trend by squashing all of the good bits from the old three-day Hennessy fixture into two days from this year on.

Looking at the five-day declarations this can only be seen as a good move and one of the significant changes sees the bet365 Long Distance Hurdle move to a feature slot on the Friday.

This Grade Two deserves an afternoon in the limelight, rather than as a pre-cursor to the Hennessy, as its roll of honour down the years showcases some of the greats of the staying hurdling game. Like Deano's Beano, Baracouda, Inglis Drever, Big Buck's and Thistlecrack (him again).

If any bookies are jumping on the Black Friday bandwagon, I wouldn't mind a you-would-be-mad-not-to-at-that-price wager on the Long Distance Hurdle winner going on to World Hurdle glory at next year's Cheltenham Festival. 100/1 should do it.

The World Hurdle ante-post market is a mess at present and full of horses likely to miss the race, like Faugheen, Thistlecrack, Annie Power and Buveur d'Air. Weekend winners Nichols Canyon and Yanworth look likelier types to be aimed at the contest, but neither convince me as the type of stayer usually required.

The Long Distance Hurdle, though, at the five-day stage at least, looks full of promising World Hurdle types. And all at relatively fancy prices for Cheltenham, too.

Albert Bartlett winner Unowhatimeanharry (16/1 for the World), Sefton Novices' Hurdle winner Ballyoptic (also 16s), the fascinating Shantou Bob after an absence (any price you like) and maybe, he's in the five-dayers at least, Noel Meade's recent Lismullen Hurdle winner Snow Falcon (25s).

Inglis Drever, Big Buck's and Thistlecrack have all done the Long Distance-World Hurdle double in recent years. And looking at the ante-post market for the Cheltenham race, something is going to rise to prominence in the betting sooner rather than later.

It could be this Friday. Hopefully those Grade One-winning novices from last season, Unowhatimeanharry and Ballyoptic, will bang heads for the first time. If they do, we could well see a realistic World Hurdle contender emerge from the LDH yet again.

Still no UK runners for Mullins

It had been a very tough start to the season for Willie Mullins – something of an understatement after 60 Gigginstown horses in his care were shifted elsewhere – even before Vautour and Avant Tout's lives were sadly taken prematurely.

The master of Closutton is beginning to bounce back, though. A Clonmel treble on Thursday was followed by a Punchestown double on Saturday, before Nichols Canyon and Isleofhopeandreams delivered a cross-card Punchy-Cork double the day after that.

What is noticeable, though, is Mullins' lack of entries in Britain so far this season.

He always slowly dips his toe into the British season, not really unleashing his awesome firepower until the spring festivals, but to have no runners here at all at this stage is something of a surprise.

This time last year he had nine runners in Britain in November. including five at the Open meeting, one in the Hennessy and one in the Fighting Fifth.

But this season, he had no runners at Cheltenham, he doesn't have a Hennessy horse, and nothing to contest the Fighting Fifth, either.

It's the Newcastle race that is the most surprising omission, in many ways. He's brought Arctic Fire and Wicklow Brave over to contest the race the last two years, and given the serious strength in depth among his two-mile hurdlers you would think it would be a good opportunity for him to run something.

It is a Grade One, after all, and a chance to see where he is compared with the best of British.

Maybe Mullins' lack of runners in Britain is due to the Gigginstown factor. Perhaps it's not having the right horses for the right races. But for a stable that was rumoured to be looking at having a satellite yard in the UK only a season or two ago this zero-runner policy is a surprising development.

I'm sure we'll see the name W P Mullins on a British racecard soon. It's certainly hard to envisage the King George without that name among its roll call.

But a tilt at the British trainers' title, like last season, looks unlikelier with each passing week. It's improbable we'll be seeing eight Mullins runners at the Sandown jumps finale this season, like we did last. McKinley, his eighth runner that day, was his last runner, and last winner, in the UK.

Perhaps that fight to the last for the UK championship with Paul Nicholls took its toll on Mullins. Maybe this is him saying, 'No more of that, it's not for me.'

But if that is the case, the bookmakers aren't listening. Incredibly, despite having zero runners so far in Britain this season, Mullins remains the second favourite for the UK trainers' championship with most bookies quoting odds on the market, ahead of the aforementioned Tizzard who has already racked up over half a million in prizemoney this season.

It just goes to show, whatever head start Mullins gives his British contemporaries, the oddsmakers clearly expect the Irish Champion trainer to dominate the Cheltenham Festival again, despite his setbacks. I guess after the last few years, who can blame them?

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