Team is best trainer has ever boasted
ASK Colin Tizzard about the quality of his team for the serious months of the NH season and the reply is emphatic: "The best I have ever had by miles."
With a record 70 horses in his care at Milborne Port ranging from the nobility of Cue Card and Golden Chieftain to such exciting youngsters as Midnight Thunder and Ultragold it is obvious why the master of Venn Farm Racing is so enthusiastic and optimistic.
The 2012-13 campaign saw Tizzard top 40 winners for the third season in a row and prize-money at £813,000 was almost twice his previous highest and placed him in the top 10 of the trainers' championship for the first time.
The stable has been upwardly mobile every year since 2008-09 when he finished 28th in the table and Team Tizzard are determined to continue the trend.
The bulk of last season's booty came from Cue Card (£325,000) and Tizzard has mapped out a similar programme for his Ryanair hero this winter – with one significant difference because the 3m Grade One Betfair Chase at Haydock Park on November 23 is on the radar.
Last season the trainer abandoned plans for a tilt at the Cheltenham Gold Cup after a disappointing performance in the King George VI Chase.
But that was then and this is now because he still harbours thoughts that the King's Theatre gelding will get 3m.
Cue Card has time on his side. Although he seems to have been around for ages, the horse is only seven, should improve – and the Ryanair has been the stepping-stone to Gold Cup glory as Imperial Commander showed in 2010.
Cue Card will open his campaign aiming for a repeat win in the Haldon Gold Cup over an extended 2m1f at Exeter on November 5 with Haydock the next port of call to tackle the likes of proven stayers Silviniaco Conti and Long Run before another crack at December's King George.
Although Cue Card looked a non-stayer when a 20-length fifth to Long Run in the 2012 King George, Tizzard felt the horse was not at his best: "He may have been suffering from a low-grade virus and the heavy ground was against him too.
"Following Kempton we worked him harder and he was brilliant after that winning the Ascot Chase and the Ryanair before Sprinter Sacre put us firmly in our place for a second time at Aintree.
"He'll go for the King George again and the same Ascot race in February and then Cheltenham." Which race at the Festival? Tizzard smiles and says: "His owner Bob Bishop would love to have a runner in the Gold Cup."
Connections were hardly surprised when Golden Chieftain was hiked 16lb by the handicapper following his 10-length annihilation of the JLT Speciality Handicap Chase field at the Festival.
The question now is: can he win off his new mark? Tizzard could not put that to the test last season as the eight-year-old stepped on a stone 10 days after the Festival and suffered a foot infection that sidelined him for the rest of the campaign.
Tizzard said: "Golden Chieftain was so impressive at Cheltenham. We had only seen him run like that once before when he cantered away from a decent field at Worcester the previous October.
"Whether he can cope with the rise in weight we'll have to see. We'll start him in a 3m handicap chase at the first Cheltenham meeting in October and if that goes well he'll go for the Hennessy Gold Cup."
Golden Chieftain starts the season on 148, 10lb inferior to Aintree Festival winner Oiseau De Nuit. "Oiseau De Nuit is 11 but as good as ever and is on his highest mark ever. His rating puts him too high for veterans' races. We'll have to run him in the best 2m races and hope one falls into his lap."
Masters Hill has recovered from the stress fracture in the cannon bone that curtailed his season and will be aimed at an intermediate chase. "We still don't know how good he is."
By David Briers