Wednesday 21 February 2018

Cue Card’s staying power sets up shot at £1m bonus

Photo-finish win raises the roof at Kempton as victor looks genuine article for Cheltenham

Paddy Brennan on Cue Card (r) alongside Vautour and Ruby Walsh after clearing the last on the way to winning the King George at Kempton yesterday. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Paddy Brennan on Cue Card (r) alongside Vautour and Ruby Walsh after clearing the last on the way to winning the King George at Kempton yesterday. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Marcus Armytage

If Cue Card was vying for the position of most popular chaser in Britain before yesterday, that title is now his after the 9-2 shot got up in the last stride in yesterday’s William Hill King George VI Chase to deny the Irish raider Vautour by a head in an epic edition of Kempton’s St Stephen’s Day showpiece.

On a day when the holiday punters like their favourites, it was telling that, when the outcome of the photo-finish was called, the roof was very nearly raised off Kempton — even though the shorter priced of the pair had been vanquished.

Cue Card, with the first two legs of the Jockey Club’s £1 million ‘triple crown’ bonus of the Betfair Chase, King George and Gold Cup in the bag, will now go to Cheltenham for the third leg in March with the nation willing him on and, what is more, finally looking the genuine article.

In contrast to the young, hot-headed Cue Card, a Cheltenham Festival Bumper winner at four but who expended too much energy early on in his races for much of his career, including three times previously in this race, the nine-year-old mature version is also a wiser version.

For much of yesterday’s race he was anonymous in the middle of the pack, where once he would have been fighting for his head in front. All the while, however, he was expending little energy and saving it for when it really mattered.

But when Ruby Walsh and Vautour took over in front from the two-time winner Silviniaco Conti a mile out, Paddy Brennan, who is now unbeaten in three starts on Cue Card, began to creep into contention and, though Vautour seemed to be cruising off the home bend, both Cue Card and Don Cossack, the favourite, were staying on.

At the second last, Vautour was still three lengths up. Don Cossack, who had seemed to struggle for large parts of the race, was still there on Cue Card’s girth in third but he needed a big one to stay in the hunt. He came down trying to reach for it. Cue Card, meanwhile, was beginning to catch Vautour but needed a big one himself at the last.

However, he met it on the wrong stride, fiddled his way over it and it was Vautour who landed running. Momentarily, it seemed to have cost Cue Card the race. But Brennan galvanised his mount — he was later given an 11-day ban and fined £4,200 (about half his winning percentage of the prize-money) for over-use of the whip, while Walsh got two days — and whether Vautour’s stamina was running out, or Cue Card’s was just kicking in, it is hard to tell, but it was not until the very last stride of the three-mile contest when Cue Card finally got his head in front.

“It’s for the horse really,” said his understated trainer Colin Tizzard. “He’s been our mainstay since he won the Champion Bumper aged four (six years ago) and everyone thought I’d trained him too hard too young. He’s back to his brilliant best and to win it is great. We thought if he finished third or fourth he’d have run a great race.”

After years of mixing dairy cows and racehorses on his Dorset farm, Tizzard separated them into different barns during the summer and handed over the management of the cows to his son and Cue Card’s former jockey, Joe. “It’s great to have two horses like this one and Thistlecrack (winner of the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot before Christmas),” added Tizzard. “It’s always been my dream to just train horses. I used to try and get them super, super fit, but we’re more relaxed now and it’s more about routine. It’s working for these boys anyway.

“He got a lovely reception. Cue Card’s been about a long time. He means a lot to me and a lot of other people.” It was the biggest win for owners Bob and Jean Bishop. “I got a call from Paddy last night saying he wouldn’t sleep a wink because we’d win,” recalled Bishop.

“When we went to Wetherby at the start of the season he told me the others might as well not turn up and he had the same confidence before the Betfair. I’d fancy going straight to the Gold Cup now.”

Brennan, 34, who won the 2010 Gold Cup on Imperial Commander, had already credited Cue Card with turning round his career which, since that heady day, has not lacked winners but has been missing big ones.

“The King George is the next biggest race after the Grand National and Gold Cup and you only get so many cracks at them” he said. “Today Cue Card was almost too switched off. Away from the stands I had to push him into a gap beside Don Cossack to wake him up a bit. He was almost a bit lack-lustre and sluggish compared to Wetherby.”

He added: “I smashed my phone on the way here, then had a fall and I thought it was going to be one of those days. It was hell for leather down to the last and I needed one but lost half a length.

“He fiddled it well but I was running out of time and needed every yard of the trip, but I always had it in my mind that Vautour might not stay.

“It’s almost more satisfying coming back after you get knocked down to win a race like this. The harder it is, the harder I work, the earlier I get up. I learned that when I was with Jim Bolger.”

The first two were 13 lengths clear of the greys, Al Ferof and Smad Place, in third and fourth respectively.

“It could have been stamina,” said Vautour’s trainer Willie Mullins. “It looks a bit like that but we won’t be making any decisions for a while. We’ll see what else we have [for the Gold Cup] but I won’t be taking him out of the race yet.”

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