Things that make you go ‘Boof’
It was always going to take more than a few jumping howlers to shake Colin Tizzard's love for Thistlecrack. Our man Will Hayler reports from Cheltenham after a day Alan King called the strangest he could remember.
Tom Scudamore can afford to take a look over his shoulder after the final fence.
Not unlike a teenage tearaway being asked to watch CCTV footage of the scuffle which he started outside the kebab shop, Colin Tizzard started off in defensive mood when asked to look at the big screen next to the Cheltenham winner's enclosure and talk about Thistlecrack's jumping on his way to victory in the Mallardjewellers.com Novices' Chase on the second day of Cheltenham's Open meeting.
"Everyone is going to scrutinise his jumping, because he is such a big powerful horse who gallops so well that there's nothing else to talk about is there?" he said. "He was always going to win.
"He can be absolutely brilliant, but…" Tizzard's voice cut away, as we watched the replay of his horse approach the first of four open ditches he encountered on the way round.
"Look at that. Boof!
"That's novicey, that is. If he'd been going half a stride faster, he'd have come up there and landed 15 foot out the other side."
It was the ultimate mixed bag – perhaps reflected in Mick Fitzgerald's award of a mark of 5/10 on Channel 4 Racing for Thistlecrack's jumping. It was near enough a 0 at some and near enough a 10 at others.
Talk of the 32Red King George VI Chase and the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup has not been thrown out, but parked, pending a new emergency stop, possibly the Worcester Novices' Chase on Newbury's Hennessy Gold Cup day card, for further match practice.
"When he was in first or second gear he seemed to be thinking 'I'll have a go at this one', but he's good when he gets in deep. He had his head in his chest, as he should," said Tizzard.
"He's not the finished article and I can't see any point in staying in his stable for the next six weeks. I'd like him to take on more rivals, but people won't take us on.
"If we're going big after Christmas, he needs to get more experience – he has such a big engine he won't have given himself a hard race today. At the moment, he's a novice chaser and so we'll have another run and then decide his next target."
Part of the joy of the Thistlecrack story is that he has been so thoroughly adopted by the racing community, despite being at such an embryonic stage of his steeplechasing career. More than 30,000 racegoers were watching their baby as he made such a mess of the fifth and seventh fences. It's no wonder they oohed and aahed at him, before cheering him into the winner's enclosure in a manner most unlike the respectful applause usually merited by a 1/7 favourite winning an egg-and-spoon novices' chase.
All parents want their children to flourish and that goes some way to explain the apparent majority view that Thistlecrack should tackle the smartest company as soon as possible.
Tizzard understands. After all, in less than a couple of months, Thistlecrack will be nine, and arguably at his very peak.
Nevertheless, he sounded a definite note of caution for those tempted to get involved with him on an ante-post basis.
"The King George is a very hot race, a 'Yeehaa' all the way round as we've seen in the past. It's one of the toughest races you can imagine," he said.
"He's not there yet. He needs more education. He's got the engine to do it and he can jump, can't he? He was just a bit novicey today.
"If you don't get nervous or apprehensive training a horse like this you must be stone, cold dead. It's fantastic to be part of him, but we're on a learning curve."
The education continued on the second circuit. Approaching the same ditches that had caused him a panic on the first two circuits, Tom Scudamore settled for a short one at the 13th, but his partner didn't seem comfortable with that plan and lost momentum.
It was then back to a long one for the 15th, but Thistlecrack can't so far seem to do L without doing XXL. He took off two strides too soon and once again it was only the horse's sheer strength that carried him – and his back legs – through the fence.
By this stage, Thistlecrack's sheer speed had already ensured that victory was beyond doubt barring a fall. Poor Ballycross, rated 133, was taken off his feet from the very start. Aqalim, rated 140, had thrown in the towel long before the finish. You can crab Aqalim's enthusiasm for racing, but he tends to come home strongly enough. This time, he was a spent force by halfway against the immovable force in front.
Sometimes you can watch steeplechasers (yes, Minella Rocco, I'm talking about you) struggling with their craft and simply get the feeling that they will never quite get the hang of jumping fences. Sometimes you just know that when it all clicks, you're going to end up with something special.
"Everyone enjoys him. Everyone wants to see him. It's what National Hunt racing is all about," said Tizzard.
"Today, I felt like they felt. He's such a lovely boy, isn't he? He's got such a lovely way about him. He's such a big, strong chap and the fences are just getting in the way a little bit. But if you practice anything, you get better at it."