People’s horse proves right on Cue
Judged by the numbers crowded around the winner's enclosure after Haydock's Betfair Chase, and the spontaneous three cheers for Cue Card hollered out from the crowd, Colin Tizzard's ageless warrior can lay serious claim to being the most popular racehorse in training in Britain.
Cue Card returns to the winner's enclosure, led in by groom Hamir Singh, as Colin Tizzard receives congratulations from racecourse chairman Lord Daresbury.
Asked to say a few words from the winner's podium, Brennan was poignant and to the point in his delivery.
"I just want to thank everyone here today," he said. "This is so special. It's so much appreciated. He's the people's horse."
Brennan's relationship with racing has not always been an altogether happy one, but at 35, he has moved effortlessly into the role of being a man for the big occasion, even if he still prefers to look at things as an outsider.
"I knew as he went to the start that things were going to be so much different today," he told reporters.
"I always get too excited but I just love days like this. Honestly, if I'd dreamt 1000 times in my life, I never thought I would be lucky enough to ride a horse like this."
Brennan admitted he had been "feeling a lot of pressure" coming into the race and the ghosts of the horse's fall in last season's Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup at the third-last fence have clearly not yet been fully exorcised.
"There's responsibility riding a horse like Cue Card," he said. "I'm not saying he's Kauto Star, but he's got an aura and he's got a following. He means a lot to so many people. It hasn't sunk in yet. I felt that maybe it got away a little in last season's Gold Cup but after today I think we've got a chance of putting that right.
"I always knew he was good enough. Seriously, I just knew things were going to be better today. I know Cue Card and I knew going to the start. At Wetherby, I didn't have that.
"You can talk about riding the race, but when he's on that form, you can ride him however you want. He's different class.
"I've got no rides tomorrow so there will be celebrations. The first thing Colin said when he gave me the saddle was 'You've got over that?' and I said 'This has always been in the back of my mind. There was never going to be much celebrating until I rode Cue Card today'. I'm going to enjoy this now."
While Brennan may have been feeling the pressure, Tizzard had arrived at the track relaxed despite spending two hours parked on the M6 due to an overturned tanker on his way to the track with owner Jean Bishop.
"It was nice to have a chance to sit and read the paper for a bit," he said.
With the shuttle bus to Newton-le-Willows station cancelled and replaced by an ark, the testing conditions were thought likely to suit mudlark Coneygree. Indeed, they probably did. The pair of them effectively had the race to themselves, finishing clear of cannily-ridden French raider Vezelay, who delighted his connections when staying on for third place.
But the days when Cue Card was thought to struggle on very soft ground are gone. Brennan was happy to take the inside line throughout, even bravely throwing down his challenge up Coneygree's inner four out. But Cue Card was not a complicated ride here. He simply cruised away throughout.
"He does like this ground," said Tizzard. "Three years ago we'd have worried about this ground, but the few times we have run on it, he just sort of floats on top. He's got a lovely, low, beautiful, easy action, which means he doesn't go in.
"He's every bit as good as he's ever been. We trained him hard so that he could win the Festival bumper when he was four, but he keeps coming back for more. He's 10, rising 11. But he wants to be here. This is what he wants.
"He had a brilliant season last year and he seemed exactly the same at home. I'm just chuffed for the horse that he can keep on doing it. You think is time catching up, but it's not. He's a star, isn't he?"
Even by his own extravagant standards, Coneygree looked to be yearning for the old, more vertical Haydock Park fences, clearing the third fence by about a foot and skying the following open ditch almost as theatrically.
Briefly coming to the third-last fence, it looked as if Coneygree was on the verge of rallying to throw down a second challenge to the winner, but he tired from that point, even if Johnson was very much on the sympathetic side from the final fence and in doing so exaggerated the winning margin.
He came back beaten, but by no means bowed, and there was little obvious outwards sign afterwards of the issues that had kept him off the course for more than a year coming here.
"He's not just coming back after a year, but he's coming back without having been on the grass, and I really think that's made the difference," said Sara Bradstock, Coneygree's inseparable partner.
"It's lovely to have him back. His stamina is extraordinary. Richard said there was a moment after he'd got headed where he wanted to go again.
"We'll probably go for the King George but the man from Ireland is always trying to tempt us over there for the Lexus Chase. There's no reason why we wouldn't go there. I suspect we'll go for the King George, but we'll just see."
While defeat for Coneygree may have cost connections the chance of attacking the Jockey Club Racecourses £1million bonus, it has also freed them up from having to take on Cue Card again in the King George, with Leopardstown the alternative.
Bradstock was however in fighting mood rather than running scared of the re-match.
"We'll be back," she said. "He [Cue Card] won't beat us again."
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