Thistlecrack and trainer Colin Tizzard missed the Cheltenham Gold Cup last season. The bay gelding was considered one of the leading contenders for the event but was ruled out of action due to injury. Sizing John capitalised on his absence to claim the crown with a fine run, finishing well ahead of the rest of the field, including Djakadam.
Tizzard’s charge will return to the fold for the race this season after returning to fitness. However, the nine-year-old has struggled for form since his comeback. The horse had been on a nine-race winning run before he was sidelined. Since his return to the track, he has not managed to enter the winners’ circle and is now considered an outsider challenger behind Sizing John and Might Bite.
The race should be an enthralling prospect and there are a number of quality competitors that will be vying for the title – in arguably the most prestigious race of the National Hunt season. We’ll now break down the horses that will lay claim to the crown, including Thistlecrack and the reigning champion Sizing John.
The bay gelding began his career in the 2013/14 season, claiming his first victory in his second outing in the Standard Open NH Flat Race at Wincanton. It took another year before Tizzard moved his charge into a hurdles event and Thistlecrack delivered with a fine performance to claim victory in the National Hunt Novices’ Hurdle at Wincanton. He dominated a Class 2 race in his second appearance at Ascot, dominating the rest of the field with Ruby Walsh in the saddle. Tizzard’s charge then produced a brilliant run at Aintree, defeating Blaklion among others in the Novices’ Hurdle. The horse almost ended his first term in the National Hunt on a high note, only to be defeated in his final race of the term by Irish horse Killultagh Vic at Punchestown.
He started the new campaign in perfect fashion by winning the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury by six lengths, with race favourite Whisper bringing up the rear. The victory would kickstart his 13-race winning run, which was only ended by a tendon injury before Cheltenham Festival. After his win at Newbury, the bay gelding was considered the favourite for the Long Walk Hurdle. He did not disappoint at Ascot with a victory by eight lengths. Thistlecrack gave a hint of his form for Cheltenham Festival with another outstanding run in the dress rehearsal to win the Cleeve Hurdle by 12 lengths. Tizzard’s charge was able to emulate his display at the main event, cruising to victory by seven lengths in the World Hurdle. With Tom Scudamore in the saddle once again, the bay gelding ended his impressive campaign with yet another triumph at the Liverpool Stayers’ Hurdle at Aintree.
Thistlecrack started the 2016/17 season with a fine run at Chepstow in the Novices Chase, seeing off the threat of Aqalim. He then made another triumphant return to Cheltenham, winning the Novices’ Chase by three-and-three-quarter lengths ahead of Marinero. The nine-year-old maintained his form with another victory at Newbury before his showdown with an elite field at Kempton Park on Boxing Day. Tizzard’s charge was flawless in his run in the King George VI Chase, with Scudamore timing his surge through the field to perfection to beat out Cue Card by three-and-a-quarter lengths.
His winning run was brought to an end by Many Clouds at Cheltenham, losing out by a head in the Cotswold Chase, although it was the starting point of his tendon injury that ruled him out of the Gold Cup. After 11 months out of action, he returned to the track in the Long Distance Hurdle, but was well off the pace, recording his worst performance since the Imperial Cup Handicap Hurdle in 2015, receiving criticism from tipsters at Oddschecker although there is confidence that he can bounce back. Thistlecrack has the talent, but is running out of time to reach his peak form ahead of the Gold Cup.
The bay gelding did not enjoy a distinguished charge to his career. He finished sixth and fourth in his opening two races, failing to make an impression at Limerick and Punchestown. However, Sizing John broke his duck at the Maiden Hurdle in Naas in November 2014, edging out Phil’s Magic after being considered the favourite for the meet. He got his first look at the speed of Douvan in his next appearance at the Novice Hurdle at Gowran Park, losing out by 12 lengths. However, he bounced back at Leopardstown in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle, delivering an excellent run to claim the crown. The pace of Douvan loomed large in his first crack at Cheltenham Festival, with the French horse easing to victory in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle while Sizing John placed third. Douvan conquered him once again in the final race of the season at Punchestown in the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle, with the bay gelding losing out by seven-and-a-half lengths.
He returned to Punchestown for the start of the campaign, delivering a fine win at the Beginners Chase, triumphing with ease without the presence of Douvan. Sizing John notched back-to-back victories with another solid outing at Punchestown to send him into another confrontation with his rival with momentum. However, in the Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown, Douvan blew away the rest of the field for sheer pace, winning by 18 lengths ahead of Sizing John. The French horse had his number once again in their next contest at Cheltenham, although the margin of defeat was narrower, Douvan still claimed the crown at the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase. Henry de Bromhead’s charge ended the season with two third-place finishes, highlighting the difference between him and the elite horses in the class.
As a result, the bay gelding was put into the hands of Jessica Harrington in order to get stronger performances out of the seven-year-old. However, it did not appear to bear fruit in his opening meet of the 2016/17 National Hunt season, finishing eight lengths behind Douvan in Leopardstown. Sizing John ended a five-race winless run in his next outing at Thurles, defeating Sub Lieutenant with a fine run down the stretch. The bay gelding hinted at greater things by overcoming a poor start to the Irish Gold Cup to win the event, finishing just ahead of Empire of Dirt with a sprint finish. Harrington’s charge carried that form into the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and beginning the meet as a slight outsider, jockey Robbie Power guided the horse through the field before surging down the final furlong to claim the victory. He beat out Djakadam once again in their clash in the Punchestown Gold Cup. On this occasion the battle was closer as Harrington’s charge was forced to fend off his challenge down the stretch, winning the race by a short head. The bay gelding proved that he remains the class of the field with another victory in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase to kickstart the 2017/18 season, and will be a formidable opponent for Thistlecrack.
Nicky Henderson’s charge has less experience than the other two horses that he could cross paths within his battle for the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He began his career in the 2014-15 National Hunt campaign, opening up with a third-place finish in a flat race at Newbury. Might Bite recorded the first win of his career at the Novices’ Hurdle at the same venue, dominating the rest of the field with Nico de Boinville in the saddle to triumph by 15 lengths. After his success, the Irish horse was considered the favourite at his debut outing at Cheltenham and he earned back-to-back victories by edging out Souriyan down the final straight.
At the start of the new season, he took a step back as the Irish horse struggled for pace at Cheltenham finishing well down the field in fifth place in the Novices’ Chase. However, Might Bite bounced back with a brilliant performance in the Kempton Park Silver Plate Handicap Hurdle, winning the event by a comfortable margin, although he was considered an outsider for the victory. His campaign was to end on a sour note, with an underwhelming outing at Cheltenham, placing in seventh at the Handicap Hurdle. The Irish horse was held out of the winners’ circle to start the new term at Ffos Las by compatriot Binge Drinker as an awkward landing towards the end of the meet prevented him from challenging down the straight. Daryl Jacob took the reins at Doncaster and had Might Bite back to his imperious best, winning by 14 lengths ahead of his nearest challenger. As a result, the bay gelding entered the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase with momentum, only to suffer the first fall of his career in the meet at Kempton Park. Jacob had the horse on course for victory, but he fell at the last fence, crushing his hopes of victory.
Might Bite’s response since his fall has been emphatic, winning all four of his meets over the past year. Beginning at Doncaster in the Novices’ Chase, De Boinville returned to the saddle and guided the Irish horse to a dominant victory. Henderson’s charge was considered the favourite for the RSA Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham Festival. The bay gelding set his stall out from the off by powering ahead of the field and appeared to be on his way to a comfortable win. A mistake at the last fence almost allowed Whisper to close, but he beat out his rival by a nose to claim the crown. He ended the season with another victory over the French horse at Aintree in the Mildmay Novices’ Chase.
The eight-year-old began the new campaign with his fourth win on the bounce, triumphing at the Future Stars Intermediate Chase at Sandown Park. The Irish horse delivered on expectations with a dominant victory, highlighting the threat he will pose at Cheltenham.
Who To Trust?
All three of the horses have strong records and will have an almighty tussle for the crown in March. Thistlecrack appeared to be the horse to beat before the meet last season, only for injury to rob spectators of a duel between him and Sizing John. Tizzard’s charge has not been able to get a great deal of racing action under his belt since his tendon injury and that could loom large in a duel against a fine competitor. He has time to get form under his belt and Tizzard will be working extremely hard in the months ahead in order to get his horse into shape. Thistlecrack has proven quality on the big occasion with wins at the King George VI Chase and World Hurdle at Cheltenham, but Sizing John is the hot hand at the moment. The seven-year-old has won his last five meets against excellent opposition. Power has managed to get the best out of the horse at crucial moments in the race to see off Djakadam among others.
Sizing John has an intriguing few months ahead of him as another victory in the Gold Cup and a potential to challenge at the Grand National could see join an elite group of horses. Harrington could have a history-maker on her hands and will be doing her utmost to maintain her charge’s form ahead of the crucial meets. Might Bite is on the rise and could be this season’s following in the footsteps of Sizing John last season. He has raw potential with a number of quality victories under his best.
However, his form at Cheltenham outside of the RSA Novices’ Chase could be a concern, while the stamina of the horse could also come into question down the stretch. Whisper almost caught him down the straight at Cheltenham. Sizing John and Thistlecrack will not be so forgiving if put in a similar position – therefore there’s a challenge ahead for Henderson in order to get his charge into the best possible shape to endure the pace of outstanding competitors. We could see a repeat champion for the first time since Best Mate as Sizing John looks formidable.