Yes, says Darren Norris: In a race that lacks any real depth, even-money represents value for a horse of his class...
At first glance, backing a novice at evens to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup looks an act of lunacy.
After all, Coneygree in 2015 is the only novice to have won this race since Captain Christy did the business back in 1974.
There’s a reason why this is the case. The Gold Cup is a savage test, one that requires class, skill, stamina, and courage. Consequently, very few novices are even asked to tackle it. However, Thistlecrack is no ordinary novice.
The Colin Tizzard-trained nine-year-old hasn’t tasted defeat since going down by half a length to Killultagh Vic at Punchestown in April 2015 and was superb in his final season over hurdles, winning all five starts – including the Stayers’ Hurdle - with imperious authority.
It would have been easy — and profitable — to stay over hurdles but connections chose to be brave and go down the chasing route. It was a brilliant call.
Thistlecrack won his first three starts over fences and connections again opted to be bold by pitching him in against stable-mate Cue Card in the King George at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day.
Once more bravery was rewarded as Thistlecrack produced a scintillating round of jumping to beat Cue Card by three and a quarter lengths. In doing so, he confirmed himself as jump racing’s biggest star.
After the hysteria had abated, some questioned the quality of that King George triumph.
Cue Card was below par, the critics argued. Three of Thistlecrack’s four rivals finished within four lengths of him. The winning time of five minutes, 53 seconds wasn’t especially quick. As a point of comparison, Might Bite would have won the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase over the same trip 15 to 20 seconds quicker had he not fallen at the last fence.
There’s some merit to these arguments but there’s a danger of making too much of the proximity of Thistlecrack’s rivals at the line. Perhaps mindful of the fate that befell Might Bite and Daryl Jacob little more than an hour earlier, Tom Scudamore was ultra-careful over the last two fences, asking Thistlecrack to pop rather than do anything too flamboyant.
Then, with the race won, he eased up in the last 50 yards, allowing his rivals close the gap. As a result, it’s hard not to conclude that Thistlecrack was value for far more than three and a quarter lengths.
That partly explains why the winning time wasn’t especially brilliant. It’s also worth noting, as Ruby Walsh did on these pages before the race, that the smallness of the field — just the five runners — meant it wasn’t a typical King George. A line-up that small tends to ensure a more tactical affair and, as a consequence, a slower run race.
Obviously, it would be nice if there was more juice to Thistlecrack’s Gold Cup price but events since the King George suggest this year’s renewal will be a far from vintage one. Both Coneygree and Don Cossack have been ruled out in recent weeks, as has Valseur Lido.
Of those that remain, Native River won the Hennessy and the Welsh National this season but the suspicion is he didn’t beat a rival of real substance in either race while, at 11, Cue Card is surely too old.
And what of the Irish challenge?
The evidence of the last two Gold Cups suggests Djakadam lacks the speed to win this race and he also has to bounce back from a sluggish display at Christmas. Don Poli definitely lacks a gear. Lexus Chase winner Outlander has an each-way chance at 14/1 but it’s still hard to see him getting the better of the favourite.
The biggest danger to Thistlecrack is likely to be the 22 obstacles. He’s an exuberant jumper but there’s a fine line between flamboyance and recklessness. Thistlecrack got pretty close to that line on a few occasions in the King George but it was encouraging to see him pop over the last few fences.
He’ll probably give supporters a few heart-stopping scares come St Patrick’s Day but the expectation is he’ll fully justify the hype.
In a Gold Cup that lacks depth, even-money represents value for a horse of his class.
No, says Tommy Lyons: There’ll be better value even-money chances at almost every National Hunt meeting run in Ireland this year...
A novice chaser odds-on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, who would have thought it? More to the point, who’d back it?
A brilliant talent, for sure, but oh-so-inexperienced over fences, and not just likely to be taking on the best field he has ever faced, but doing so on a track and over a trip which is merciless in its exposure of the least chink in the armour.
His jumping thus far has reflected the stage of his development as much as his ability. On occasion, it has been exuberant, bordering on exceptional, but there’s a bravery about it which reminds us we’re still watching a novice. Although he will get a trial run around Cheltenham this weekend, it won’t provide the same degree of a test as he can expect in seven weeks’ time.
And then there’s the man on top – Tom Scudamore.
Don’t get me wrong, he has developed into a leading rider over the past few years, but he remains a very emotional jockey and there is just that minor, niggling concern that the enormity of the occasion and the hype which has surrounded the horse has the potential to get to the rider as much as the horse.
For all bar the cream of the crop, there’s a lot of pressure riding the favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, let alone an odds-on shot. But when your mount is also a first-season novice, with limited experience and a penchant for the spectacular, any communication mix-ups between jockey and horse, or error from the saddle, will be pronounced to a level that may not be tolerated in a Gold Cup.
Thistlecrack was marvellous last season, and that performance in the World Hurdle will live forever in the memory. There’s no questioning he’s an incredible talent but, regardless of such and of how much the heart would like a performance of similar quality this time, even his connections and his greatest admirers must keep a grip on the reality that making a Gold Cup horse out of a hurdler in just one season is a rushed preparation, with associated jeopardy.
For value, his stablemate, Cue Card, who patently didn’t run to form at Kempton, is an option. He was in the process of running the race of his life until falling late in last season’s Gold Cup and, if you feel connections can bring him back to that sort of form, odds of 12-1 make considerable appeal.
And then there’s another stable-companion, Native River, who might provide a danger of another kind.
A powerful stayer, the Hennessy and Welsh National winner will not want pace to have a say in the outcome, and so is likely to try and force the issue from an early stage.
Despite his improvement this year, I doubt Native River’s ability to play a hand in the finish, but could likely forcing tactics unsettle the favourite’s rhythm through the race?
And what price would Thistlecrack be were a fully fit and top-of-his-game Don Cossack in the line-up?
Given last year’s runner-up, Djakadam, is in the race and, at eight years of age, is entitled to still be in his prime, Thistlecrack, the novice, cannot afford to be much below Don Cossack’s level if he is to justify favouritism.
Again, it’s a big ask for a novice - bigger than the market is giving credit to.
May Thistlecrack win, may he win well, and a real star be crowned. But, odds no better than even-money don’t stack up to the task ahead. There’ll be better value even-money chances at almost every National Hunt meeting run in Ireland this year, and likely better ones at the Festival.
And, lest we forget, there’s one more mountain to climb. In Saturday’s Cotswold Chase, at Cheltenham, he could have as many as 10 rivals to deal with and that will be a considerable test of his mettle. Gold Cup dreams for 2017 could be shattered long before the Festival.