Recent history suggests the first place to look for Kempton’s Boxing Day special - the Grade 1 King George VI Chase - is the trophy itself.
Since 2004 just six different horses have won the race, with five-time champion Kauto Star joined by dual winners Kicking King, Long Run and Silviniaco Conti. Cue Card, the winner two years ago, was second last year behind stablemate Thistlecrack - with the previously mentioned two-time winner Silviniaco Conti back in third.
Both Thistlecrack and Cue Card are trained by the same man - Colin Tizzard - and both are due to do it all again in this year’s race.
The nine-time Grade 1 winner Cue Card may have come along first and turned Tizzard into an overnight sensation after 15 years of hard graft, earning the deepest of spots in his trainer's heart, but you will struggle to find a bush this west country cow farmer turned trainer’s championship contender has ever beaten his way around and nothing he has ever said has given anything other than the impression he knows Thistlecrack is the most wondrously talented horse he has ever encountered.
It is an opinion the formbook only validates.
Early on Thistlecrack was a slow burn. He did not race until the age of five and made an inauspicious start - winning just two of his first five races. Yet he was thrown in at the deep end on several occasions so was clearly showing enough talent at home to justify such lofty engagements - even though he failed to deliver on the track.
Then came the race his trainer refers to as the making of him. He was dropped in class for a novice hurdle at Ascot in February. Instead of the amateur rider Mikey Legg, who had ridden him on all but his first start, Tizzard booked 12-time Irish champion jockey Ruby Walsh - the man a certain Sir Anthony McCoy describes as the best there has ever been.
Walsh won. But that only tells a fraction of the story. Thistlecrack was prominent early but he was struggling to go the pace over two miles. Walsh eased up. He let him drop out of contention. By the fifth hurdle he was plum last. Then he got to work. Pushing, nudging, niggling. Slowly they began to pick off toiling rivals. At the second last he was just five lengths behind. He stormed home to win by the best part of four lengths.
He was a brave fifth - beaten just three and a quarter lengths - on his next start in one of the most competitive handicaps of the entire season. That was to be his last run over the minimum trip.
Tizzard bravely stepped him up in trip by the not-inconsiderable amount of an entire mile. He also threw him into a Grade 1 for the first time for good measure - at the Grand National meeting at Aintree. Unsurprisingly the bookmakers did not give him much of a chance, Thistlecrack was 25-1.
He won like a 1-25 shot, by 13 lengths under Tom Scudamore. A star was born. He could not quite follow up at Punchestown when he met any amount of trouble in the closing stages and still went down by just half a length to a horse as talented as Killultagh Vic.
It was to be his last defeat in a run of nine races that spanned a year and a half, which were won by a combined 59 lengths and included utterly dismissive seven-length romps at the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals among four Grade 1s. It all culminated in last year’s King George.
He could had stayed over hurdles and dominated, he was a proven and clear champion in that field, but connections instead decided having conquered that world the wanted to reign over the chasing division.
Being as talented as he was, and eight rising nine by the time he took to fences, Tizzard decided against giving him a full season in novice company, instead planning a one-month crash course in chasing before targeting the King George. It was a plan that induced much scorn.
Thistlecrack ran three times over fences, winning all three comfortably and learning most of what he needed to learn.
And so to Kempton, the day after Christmas, to try and become the first novice ever to win the sport’s most prestigious race outside of the Cheltenham Festival. Hotter opposition could not have been found with the race’s last two winners lining up and talk of his more experienced rivals employing tactics to exploit his inexperienced jumping. It made not a jot of difference.
Instead, it was Scudamore who took things up when many expected his rivals to. He put them under pressure instead and had them bang to rights turning in. The three and a quarter length margin does not do his authority justice.
He was upwards of eight lengths clear going to the last before being eased down. He completely took apart two horses tailor-made for the King George test. As a novice. It was a simply sensational performance.
The fact so few had tried, and Thistlecrack managed it off so little chasing experience, highlights just why his trainer believes he possesses other-worldly abilities.
Since then things have been anything but smooth. Thistlecrack was beaten a head by Many Clouds on his next start and subsequently found to have an injury that kept him off the racetrack from January to December. He was a disappointing fifth, beaten 13 lengths, in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury earlier this month on his return.
The form of his King George is also more questionable than it was straight after last year’s race. Yes the runner-up Cue Card won his next start, in a Grade 1, by 15 lengths. But he has fallen on two and disappointed on the other two of his four starts since. He turns 12 on January 1.
Yes the fourth Tea For Two won a Grade 1 at Aintree, but has disappointed on both starts this season. Silviniaco Conti has been retired. Even the fifth, and last, Josses Hill has been poor since.
The formbook provides ample evidence this is one of the most fantastically talented horses of any generation. It also raises a few questions.
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