Colin Tizzard keeping faith in Cue Card and Thistlecrack
West Country trainer aiming to bring his two stars to the Punchestown festival
Colin Tizzard with Thistlecrack and Cue Card at his Spurles Farm back in Sherborne, England. He’s aiming to bring the pair of them to Punchestown. Photograph: Getty Images
Colin Tizzard isn’t the type to get jittery or skittery over his horses. Or at least he didn’t used to be. When you begin life in a caravan and your father starts a farm with half a dozen cows to his name, you tend not to get too caught up with worry over every little step your animals take in a day.
Life is life and life will be life, whatever happens.
Yet here he is, a week short of Punchestown, and he can’t lie about it. He wouldn’t quite say he has worries about bringing them over but there are nerves in the post.
He gets asked about his two superstars Cue Card and Thistlecrack several times a day just now and the simplest thing, the wisest thing, would be to declare that the weather has improved too much and the ground has got too hard and he’s going to put them away for the summer. He won’t, almost certainly he won’t. But he can’t deny it has crossed his mind.
“You do start to get a bit negative this time of year,” he says. “The sun is shining, the ground is getting quick and hard. I was at Taunton last night and it was quick, quick ground. These are proper winter horses and it would just start to nag your mind a bit. There’s no point saying otherwise.
“If there’s no rain next week, you have to think about it. You don’t want to run them on anything other than good to soft. You know what I’m saying? These horses don’t find you very often and you’ve got to look after them. There’ll always be another day.”
You get the sense if he could close his eyes and go to sleep until Cue Card lines up against Don Cossack and Vautour on Wednesday, he would. If only to shut out everyone asking him – usually with a little dash of judgment implied in the question – how they are ahead of Punchestown.
Tizzard remains pretty bullish about running them both but in the race between confidence and nerves, confidence could do with the line arriving fairly soon.
“The more you talk about it, the more little gremlins come into your mind,” he says. “You’ve got to get it right in your head. There’s no point going there thinking it’s wrong because if it does go wrong then you have to answer for that. If you go there thinking it’s right and it goes wrong, well at least you can take the consequences better. But they’re in beautiful form – that’s the great thing about both of them – and we intend to come.”
It’s not hard to see why. Tizzard has been around horse racing since the early 1970s, when he combined being a jockey with working on the family farm in the Dorset village of Milborne Port.
For most of that time, he’s been a farmer who kept his hand in with horses – first as a rider and later as a trainer when his son Joe came through the weigh room ranks. It’s only really in the past decade that the equine side of things has taken up more room in the bed than the bovine.
As ever with small trainers, one horse can make a lifetime’s difference. The Tizzards had had a few decent ones down the years – Mister One built their gallops with a handful of decent pots around the turn of the century – but it was when a novice chaser called Joe Lively tore a streak through the autumn and winter of 2007 that they really arrived. He won seven races that season, the highlight being the Feltham that Christmas.
Tizzard gradually built his yard, keeping his growing band of horses in old converted cowsheds and tumbledown stables.
It was when old friends of his Bob and Jean Bishop asked him to come to the Derby Sales in Ratoath in 2009 to help them buy a horse that Cue Card came into his life. They got him for €52,000 – €23,000 cheaper than he’d gone for as a yearling. At last count, his earnings stand at over €1.3 million. Thistlecrack too was bought for a relative song – €43,000 at the National Hunt sales in 2011.
While Cue Card was a star from the outset, winning the Cheltenham bumper as long ago as 2010, Thistlecrack was thought to be a grand sort and maybe not a whole lot more even this time last year. But a win at Aintree and a second to Kilultagh Vic at Punchestown hinted at better things to come.
And how. Thistlecrack has been the horse of the year in England, which is saying something for a staying hurdler. Five runs, five wins, each more impressive than the last. If all goes well and all stays sound, Tizzard will aim him at the Gold Cup next year. All things being equal, he’ll do the same with Cue Card. Imagine.
“He’s always had a powerful engine, but his frame was too weak to show it, which is why he’s taken so long to reach his peak,” Tizzard told the Irish Field last month.
“You’ve got to remember although he’s eight, he only had his second hurdles run a year ago. He’s a different horse to look at now, a beautiful horse, big and strong. He’s really a top-class chaser in looks, and while we’ll keep to hurdles for the spring, I genuinely believe he could win the Gold Cup next year and that’s how I’ll train him.”
Through it all, Tizzard has been the same soft-spoken, shires-bred countryman he always was. His farm looks down on Ven House, the stately home that is now home to fashion designer Jasper Conran and on whose lands Tizzard’s tenant farmer father had the caravan where he was born.
His brothers farm huge herds of cattle in the locality but Colin has passed most of that work on to Joe and has recently started to focus more fully on the horses. Around four years ago, he figured he’d retire at 60 and let Joe take over. Understandably enough, that has slipped off the agenda.
“Joe takes care of the farm now. Once he gave up being a jockey, I had very little to do with the farm. This is my whole life now. I’m 60, I handle it better now and I’m enjoying it all. Especially with what we’ve won, it’s fantastic.
“It feels better up here. It’s a beautiful place to train horses and I think it’s made a big difference. The horses are healthy this season, thank God. They’re in a new building and there’s no worries with them. They’re healthier than we’ve ever had them. We haven’t got any new horses – most of the success has come from the good old boys that have been very competitive for the last few years. They were just in better form this year.”
No point tempting fate.
“He basically ran seven miles in three weeks at Cheltenham and Aintree and he’s only six so we’ll leave him for the summer now. It’s that time of year where you have make that decision and hope that he’ll be good enough to run in the top races next year.”
Cue Card and Thistlecrack are older though and as he says, the intention is to run them. The crowds at Punchestown will hope he keeps the faith.