In the absence of either or, God forbid, both, we would have little to look forward to on the traditional highlight of St Stephen’s Day.
Cue Card has been there and done most things, including winning this race last year, and his proven form at the top level, over many seasons, should ensure he is strong enough in the market to be sent off favourite. That ought to be the case, despite the potential of his stablemate and the possibility of a rush of public money for the novice.
A bitter disappointment on his return, in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby, Cue Card bounced back to winning ways in the Betfair Chase at Haydock, with a performance worthy of him being favourite to complete back-to-back victories in this race.
Last year, he produced a late challenge to get up on the line to deny Vautour, having finished runner-up to Silviniaco Conti in the 2014 running. Based on those efforts, and his back-to-form run at Haydock, he should run his race — and that sets quite a standard for Thistlecrack to reach. The question is whether the gelding, rising 11 years of age, will have the pace to handle his two-years-younger stable-companion, which has fewer miles on the clock. Thistlecrack came of age during the 2015/16 season, which he went through unbeaten in five starts, and the undoubted highlight was that devastating performance in the World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. High-class performer Alpha Des Obeaux was primed for that occasion, but couldn’t hold a candle to the winner, whose effort earned a mark of 174. If he is to win a Cheltenham Gold Cup, he will have to reach a similar mark over fences, and cannot afford to be too far below it to win this. With just three steeplechases under his belt, it’s a tall order, but he is an exceptional talent and could well surge past such figures and into the realms of the greats.
Monday’s race will tell a lot.
There have been suggestions the race and the course may not play to his strengths, but he was almost as devastating at Aintree as at Cheltenham, and can boast wins at seven individual courses, of all description and orientation.
Of most concern is his jumping, which has, to date, been a reminder of his novice status. While fair to point out he has been to Chepstow, Cheltenham and Newbury, and successfully negotiated those difficult circuits, the significant step up in class and switch to a track which will put an emphasis on jumping at speed adds another dimension of difficulty. Thistlecrack may be turn out to be the superstar chaser of our time, but Monday’s race will not be defining. It’s an incredibly sporting move by connections to let him take his place in the line-up, and he will lose little if finding only Cue Card too good.
Should he win this race on merit, he deserves to be favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup but, on available evidence over fences and given they are joint favourites in the market, the sensible money must be with Cue Card.
Despite being re-opened, the Christmas Hurdle on the same card has attracted a rather disappointing turnout, and if Yanworth is going to justify recent support for the Champion Hurdle, he must overcome these rivals.
He wasn’t impressive in getting the better of Lil Rockerfeller last time, but it was his first run of the season and he is entitled to improve for it. Whether he has the pace for two miles on decent ground or not is open to debate, but this race should go a long way to answering that question.
The official handicapper’s reaction to The New One’s victory in the International Hurdle indicates the near-nine-year-old is at least as good as ever.That’s quite hard to believe, though he may not have to be at that level to compete as there is no Faugheen in this race, as there was when was runner-up in 2015.
My Tent Or Yours hasn’t looked near his best in two runs this season and, while he should reverse previous form with Ch’Tibello, he is 8lbs worse off with The New One for a three-and-a-half-length beating. Gray Wolf River has almost seven stone to find with The New One, on official ratings. As Grade One races over two miles go, this is not the strongest, and presents a good opportunity for Yanworth to prove he deserves consideration as a potential Champion Hurdler.