Thistlecrack in the King George at Kempton -- good for the race, but is it good for the horse?

Every now and then in racing, a performance makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand bolt upright and sends shivers down the spine.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 23rd December 2016, 5:22 pm
Updated Thursday, 29th December 2016, 3:12 pm
NEW KING ON THE BLOCK? -- novice Thistlecrack is aiming to spike the guns of stablemate Cue Card in the 32Red King George at Kempton on Boxing Day.
NEW KING ON THE BLOCK? -- novice Thistlecrack is aiming to spike the guns of stablemate Cue Card in the 32Red King George at Kempton on Boxing Day.

One such performance graced Kempton Park on Saturday, February 26 2000 when GLORIA VICTIS powered to an astonishing victory in the Racing Post Handicap Chase.

Making all under a gung-ho ride from Richard Johnson, the 6yo French import, trained by Martin Pipe, defied top weight and left a huge crowd at the Sunbury track open-mouthed.

It came at a time when the meeting was a major event on the Jumps calendar and a genuine trials day for the Cheltenham Festival, while the Grade Three race, now known as the BetBright Chase, was basking in its pomp.

To give you some idea of Gloria Victis’s achievement, he gave fully 15lb and a ten-length beating to Nicky Henderson’s runner-up, MARLBOROUGH, who went on to land the big 3m handicap chase at the Festival a month later and finished fourth behind BEST MATE in the 2002 Gold Cup.

Incredibly, Terry Neill’s horse was still only a novice, yet so mesmerised were connections by his Kempton romp that Gloria Victis was pitched into the Gold Cup next time out. Controversy reigned, but I remember thinking at the time what a wise decision it was and although he drifted in the market on the day, he carried my substantial wager.

What happened next is etched indelibly and painfully not only in my mind but also in racing history. Although he led the field for most of the race under Tony McCoy, Gloria Victis jumped markedly out to his right at every fence and was about to be swallowed by LOOKS LIKE TROUBLE, the eventual winner, and FLORIDA PEARL when he took a fatal fall at the second last.

The highs and lows of Gloria Victis’s tragically short career are brought to mind by the decision this week to let Colin Tizzard’s novice chaser THISTLECRACK take his chance in the 32Red King George at Kempton on Boxing Day.

A decision that has rescued a renewal of the Christmas mainstay, which was rendered distinctly ordinary by the defection of CONEYGREE and the Irish contingent, and one that has been met with wild delight by most, given that it sets up a duel with stablemate superstar CUE CARD. But is it a decision that is right for the horse, and does he hold a chance of glory that realistically reflects the bookies’ cramped odds?

In no way am I suggesting a danger of Thistlecrack meeting the same fate as Gloria Victis. Heaven forbid. But the example, 16 years ago, of how difficult the transition is to top-class Grade One company even for one of the best novice chasers that ever drew breath should at least tone down the exaggerated hype surrounding Monday’s contest.

Of course, Thistlecrack is a brilliantly talented horse. His exploits last season amounted to the best staying hurdler I have ever seen, and that includes BIG BUCK’S. Over timber, he would maul Cue Card, whose official hurdles rating is 23lb inferior.

Furthermore, I can half-understand the rush by his owners, John and Heather Snook, to propel him on to the biggest chasing stage, given that he will be already a 9yo come New Year’s Day. But Tizzard has made it plain that if the decision had been left to him, he would have stayed on the novice route, taking in the Grade One Kauto Star (formerly the Feltham) on the same card. And Thistlecrack’s three displays so far over fences suggest that would have been the safest choice. Authoritative though his wins at Chepstow and Newbury were, he beat little, while at Cheltenham, his jumping was decidedly indifferent.

It is unheard of for a novice with so little experience to win a King George. Suggestions that Thistlecrack can do so only 62 days after his chasing debut would not be out of place inside a Christmas cracker.

In defence of the decision to go for the race, much has been made of the fact that Coneygree won the Gold Cup last year on the back of only three chase runs. Very true, but one of those was in Grade One company, in the aforementioned Kauto Star, which he won by a staggering 40 lengths, and the other was a spectacular dismantling of a genuine trial for the Blue Riband, the Denman Chase at Newbury, giving the Bradstocks every justifiable reason to go for the big one, particularly as they had a horse, so routinely fragile, in rare peak condition. Coneygree duly delivered the goods, but he was thumped 15 lengths by Cue Card in Haydock’s Betfair Chase last month, further underlining the magnitude of Thistlecrack’s task..

This might all sound like Christmas party-pooping to those of you frothing at the mouth in anticipation of a showdown to savour. But I’m far from sure that Thistlecrack the chaser is ready for such a challenge at this stage of his career, whereas I was certain that both Coneygree and Gloria Victis were. In fact, if Cue Card’s march towards back-to-back King Georges is to be halted, I am more persuaded by the chances of outsiders TEA FOR TWO and JOSSES HILL, particularly at the prices.

Come 3.30 pm on Boxing Day, they might be queueing up to shout me down as the pantomime villain or even dress me up as the Christmas clown. But as we go into the festive weekend, I seriously believe that those who believe Thistlecrack can beat Cue Card must surely believe in Santa Claus too.

Bah humbug!