With his rotund frame, his West Country burr and his farming roots, Colin Tizzard is not the most obvious sporting hero, even though he played cricket at school with Ian Botham.
But in the week that this year’s contenders for BBC TV’s Sports Personality Of The Year were announced, Tizzard put himself on the same pedestal as Andy Murray, Mo Farah, Max Whitlock et al in the eyes of racing folk.
For the 60-year-old Dorset trainer landed the coveted Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury to continue a remarkable string of successes that has propelled him into pole position as the main rival to Paul Nicholls for the Jumps trainers’ title.
NATIVE RIVER’S game and gutsy victory took Tizzard’s prize money tally for the season to almost £750,000, about £150,000 behind Nicholls. And although he has trained a third of the champion’s winners and fewer than the next 11 in the rankings, he boasts a handy strike rate of 20%.
Typically, the Hennessy was run at a relentless gallop. Typically, it became quite attritional from the cross-fence and too hot to handle for many of the fancied runners. But the demands of the famous contest suited the bullet-proof resilience of Tizzard’s 6yo perfectly, not to mention the man on top, champion jockey Richard Johnson, who was celebrating his first, long-awaited Hennessy triumph.
Johnson’s speciality is the aggressive, front-running, never-say-die, fence-to-fence adventure that takes no prisoners. Sometimes he overdoes the tempo, incurring the wrath of punters. And often, despite his lofty status, he stands accused of not winning enough of the big races. But on Native River, everything came together and he got it spot-on, aided no doubt by Tizzard’s shrewd instructions not to bully the young horse.
The gelding looked beaten when ballooning the third last, but delved deeper into his reserves of attitude and stamina to reward concerted market-support for him. Much like his stablemate novice THISTLECRACK, he still has some way to go before he can be lauded as a Cheltenham Gold Cup prospect. As we said last week, his profile fitted the Hennessy like a glove. But he has earned his right to contest the Festival showpiece as part of a Tizzard triumvirate sure to include too the King George favourite and £1 million bonus-chaser, CUE CARD.
As expected, the new-look, two-day Hennessy meeting, sponsored by bet365, was a riproaring success, attracting sizeable crowds. Hennessy Day itself always crackles with atmosphere, but no-one could have been disappointed by the fare on the opening day either.
It was a sure sign that the Jumps season is in full swing, and ready to keep rolling this coming Saturday with the Tingle Creek at Sandown and the Becher Chase over the Grand National fences at Aintree.
Talk of the Grand National reminds me to thank those of you who questioned my sanity after last week’s column, where I described the Hennessy as “the greatest handicap on the chasing calendar”. So classy is the National these days that it is hard to believe it remains a handicap but yes, it should have said “second greatest”! No, I haven’t lost my marbles. I’ve just acquired what I think the doctors refer to as keyboard gremlins!
Let’s hope there are no gremlins around now as I reflect on the opening shots that have been fired this Jumps season and pick out 12 horses who have caught the eye and should be well worth monitoring to the end of the campaign. I have deliberately avoided those named in my pre-season list of 20 to follow (published on November 3), which has already begun to yield plenty of winners.
BRELAN D’AS (Paul Nicholls)
A classic example of an import from France taking time to acclimatise. Nicholls’s 5yo bombed on his UK debut when a 15/8 favourite at Exeter in February, but looked a different animal when bounding home at Wincanton last month. His handicap mark has suffered -- he’s shot up from 130 to 141 -- but although he already wears both a tongue-tie and hood, he has the potential to keep progressing over both hurdles and fences, and start repaying the 225,000 euros that owner JP McManus paid for him.
BRIERY BELLE (Henry Daly)
Seasoned handler Daly is not renowned for first-time-out winners, so the neat and nimble victory, on his chasing debut, by this 7yo mare is well worth upgrading, especially as she hammered into second a very reliable customer on the Northern circuit in Sue Smith’s Vintage Clouds. Making all at a good clip and jumping like an old hand, she turned in a career-best performance, clearly improving dramatically for the switch to fences.
CLAN DES OBEAUX (Paul Nicholls)
Comparisons with stablemate Denman, who won the same race as a youngster, were ridiculous after this 4yo had breezed home in one of the big Grade Two novice chases at Newbury’s Hennessy meeting last weekend. He is a very different type, physically, to ‘The Tank’, and appears to boast more natural speed. But as Nicholls himself acknowledged, the son of Kapgarde, who was no mean juvenile hurdler last term, could hardly have been more impressive. Jockey Sean Bowen was even moved to say he’s the best horse he’s ever sat on.
LA BAGUE AU ROI (Warren Greatrex)
I’m hopeful of a bold showing by WARRANTOR in the Welsh Grand National over Christmas, but in the long term, arguably the most exciting prospect in Greatrex’s Lambourn yard is this lengthy, athletic 5yo mare. Promising in Bumpers last term, she has made a terrific start to her hurdling career, turning in a serious front-running performance at Newbury last Saturday to take the scalp of a rival who was runner-up in the mares’ novice hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March. The 2017 renewal of that same race is where this daughter of Doctor Dino is heading.
LOUGH DERG SPIRIT (Nicky Henderson)
If there was a prize for the best performance by a UK-trained novice hurdler so far this campaign, Henderson’s 4yo recruit from the point-to-point field would win it after an eyecatching debut success at Kempton. Soon settling into a beautiful rhythm in front, he travelled powerfully and jumped impeccably, inducing glowing praise from his veteran handler. He was bought for £190,000 by renowned bloodstock agent Anthony Bromley, who reckoned he was the stand-out purchase at the Tattersalls Ireland Sale at Cheltenham in May. Incidentally, he was beaten into third on his point debut by stablemate CLAIMANTAKINFORGAN, who is also a smart prospect.
MASTER OF FINANCE (Malcolm Jefferson)
It wasn’t a great novice hurdle that Jefferson’s 5yo won at Ayr, and he’d become a pretty exposed middle-distance handicapper on Flat for Mark Johnston before then. But he did reach a mark of 98 at his peak, and the manner in which he has taken to jumping suggests his canny handler can enjoy plenty of success with him. Don’t be surprised to see him pop up in a decent handicap further down the line.
MEGA FORTUNE (Gordon Elliott)
It’s not often serious Triumph Hurdle hopes are out as early as Down Royal’s annual big meeting in early November. But such was the strong impression made by this juvenile who bolted up in a competitive heat containing seven hurdles winners. Rated only 80 in six undistinguished starts on the level, he is clearly much better over timber and at a yard that is currently sweeping all before it in spectacular fashion, the son of Soldier Of Fortune should not be allowed to slip under the radar.
MICK JAZZ (Gordon Elliott)
The domination of Irish Jumps racing by Willie Mullins is under serious threat from former Martin Pipe pupil Elliott -- and one of the reasons is that the 38-year-old County Meath handler is so adept at handling all kinds of horses. Not for nothing was Elliott the youngest trainer to saddle a Grand National winner, but he’s also expert at landing a handicap touch or two with lesser sorts and, a la Diamond King in last season’s Coral Cup, I suspect this 5yo French-bred is being lined up for a similarly rich prize in the coming months. Always well regarded but rarely quite right when with Harry Fry, he made a lovely start to his career with Elliott at Navan last month and remains lightly-raced, as well as enticingly handicapped on 133.
PEACE NEWS (Henry De Bromhead)
Willie Mullins’s SATURNAS and Gordon Elliott’s LABAIK run him close, but the best display by a novice hurdler in Ireland so far this term has been delivered by this Gigginstown-owned 4yo. By all accounts, he was always among the leading young, unraced lights when with Mullins last season, and we found out why in an authoritative hurdling debut victory at Cork a few weeks ago. He did everything so professionally and appeared to have stacks left in the tank at the death. His Grade One entries are far from fanciful.
POLITOLOGUE (Paul Nicholls)
Many owners struggle to find a decent horse in a lifetime. John Hales, of One Man, Azertyuiop and Neptune Collonges fame, seems to manage it most seasons, and has unearthed another potential star in this classy 5yo grey who ran away with the best UK novice chase seen so far this term, in the Haydock mud last month. For a chasing debutant, the display was near-faultless, topped off by a striking turn of foot. Nicholls reports that he’s thrived physically during the summer and expects him to “go a long way”.
SUMKINDOFKING (Tom George)
The Irish point that this 5yo landed at Inch in March has been taken in the past by a subsequent Champion Chase winner, a Grand National winner and two RSA Chase winners. No-one is predicting yet that he can follow in their hoofsteps, but the slick manner in which an animal proven over 3m handled the minimum trip at one of the sharpest tracks in the country, Southwell, on his hurdling debut for George last month augurs extremely well for his future. He travelled, jumped and quickened and could develop into the flagship-bearer for the yard’s new partnership with jockey Adrian Heskin.
THE DUTCHMAN (Sandy Thomson)
Stable star Seeyouatmidnight could not cut the mustard when upped to Grade One company in the Betfair Chase, but former Scotland B rugby international Thomson has another up-and-coming chasing talent in his yard, courtesy of this 6yo, who caught my eye in decent company as a novice hurdler last season and made an excellent winning start to his chasing career at Wetherby last month. He had been expected to need the outing after a foot injury, so much more can be expected, especially considering it was only his fifth career run under Rules.