Cue Card excels yet again with glorious defeat of Coneygree
Report: Haydock, Saturday
Betfair Chase (Grade 1) 3m
Cold winter days at Haydock have regularly served up fare to send racegoers home toasty warm and a track synonymous with great staying chasers did so yet again as Cue Card, surely the most popular horse in training, produced a magnificent performance to win a magnificent race.
Public affection for Cue Card and Coneygree is huge, and rightly so, but the durability, consistency and talent of the Colin Tizzard-trained veteran has taken him to the very heart of racing fans.
At the age of ten, rising 11, he showed exactly why when bouncing back from a Wetherby defeat to secure his third Betfair Chase success in a gripping contest that left the winner and runner-up covered in glory and the connections of both horses justifiably delighted.
On ground turned heavy by persistent rain and sleet, this eagerly-awaited encounter was never going to be pretty. It nonetheless conjured up a beautiful sight as the evergreen Cue Card and former Gold Cup hero Coneygree fought out a stirring battle up Haydock's home straight.
With the Bradstocks' brittle but brilliant warrior not surprisingly tested for fitness in the closing stages having attempted to make all, it was Cue Card and Paddy Brennan who powered to a 15-length victory after taking the lead at the top of the home straight.
Jubilant trainer Colin Tizzard had been stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the track but he was thrilled to witness one-way traffic in the closing stages of a prize his champion had previously won in 2013 and 2015.
"He absolutely sluiced up today," said Tizzard. "He's every bit as good as he ever has been. He didn't have a hard race at all, did he?"
Cue Card will have a chance to prove his trainer right about that when charged with following up his 2015 triumph in the 32Red King George VI Chase, for which the sponsors make him 7-4 favourite, one place in front of 4-1 shot Coneygree.
From Kempton it will be onto the home of jumping where, but for an agonising fall at the third-last fence, Cue Card might well in March have claimed the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Jockey Club's £1 million Chase Triple Crown bonus.
He is now a best-priced 7-1 to gain compensation in the sport's shiniest jewel, while William Hill cut him to 8-1 from 40-1 to land the Triple Crown.
Standing in his way come the festival could well be stablemate and 4-1 Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack, yet while he has run only twice over fences, Cue Card was yesterday doing so for the 26th time, while this was his 15th strike in a career in which he first achieved fame by winning the Weatherbys Champion Bumper seven seasons ago.
One of the races he did not win was last month's Charlie Hall Chase, but that had not knocked Tizzard's confidence.
"He blew for 45 minutes afterwards," he said, recalling the Wetherby run. "He likes this ground. Three years ago we'd have been worried about it but the few times we have run him on it he has floated on top.
"He's got the best place in the stable. He can look out and see everybody. He deserves that. He's a star."
Owner Jean Bishop would certainly agree. "I suppose it gets more special each time," she said, while Brennan, who entered the Cue Card story at the start of last season, was equally overjoyed.
"He's magnificent," he said. "The way he jumped and travelled was exceptional.
"The ground was way too quick for him at Wetherby but I knew I was on the best horse today and he pretty much annihilated them. I've never been associated with a horse who is so attached to the people and the crowd. I can't wait to ride him again."
And the people can't wait to see him.
Six days after the retirement of Sprinter Sacre on what became a desperately difficult afternoon, the sport was in need of a boost. A wonderful old horse delivered it. Right on cue.