Cue Card: the fascinating rags-to-riches tale of racing’s most popular racehorse
Have you heard the one about the horse who took a dairy farmer to the winning podium at the Cheltenham Festival? The one whose success and popularity paved the way for that farmer to win multiple Grade 1s and the sport’s holy grail; the Cheltenham Gold Cup? Of course you have, because this is the tale about one of the most popular horses of all time . . . Cue Card.
His story is like a fairytale. A horse from humble beginnings who shot to stardom in his youth. The rollercoaster years were to follow, with many writing him off, but then came the almighty resurgence as he captured the hearts of a nation in his pursuit of gold.
Unfortunately, Walt Disney did not write this story. If he had, Cue Card would have pinged the third-last fence in the 2016 Gold Cup and powered past Don Cossack and Djakadam up the run-in to win the coveted prize and the £1 million Triple Crown bonus.
Sport is not like the movies and Cue Card would never have his day of destiny on a mid-March Friday afternoon at Cheltenham. But it was the lows as well as the highs that made him the people’s horse because whether it was in victory or defeat, Cue Card never failed to play on the heartstrings of his adoring fans.
Cue Card’s career began in pulsating style. A Fontwell success was followed by one of the most impressive Champion Bumper wins of all time, with his odds of 40-1 perhaps reflective of where Colin Tizzard was considered among the training ranks at the time.
“We thought he might be pretty special from an early stage,” says Joe Tizzard, son and now joint trainer at Venn Farm, but who rode Cue Card throughout the early stages of his career.
“My dad said he was such a good mover at the sales, you could barely hear his hooves hit the ground – he was floating.
“When we got him to the yard we never had a young three-year-old who could take all the work so easily, so when we went to Fontwell we fancied him and that race had really woken him up going to Cheltenham.
“We were pinching ourselves going into the race [the Champion Bumper]. We got to the paddock and Willie Mullins had his big six-year-olds and there was our smallish four-year-old and I remember my dad saying ‘whatever you do look after him’ which was him perhaps questioning whether he had him in the right race. The rest is history. I gave him one squeeze and he sprinted away from them and we knew we had something really quite special.”
They were not wrong. Cue Card would go on to win nine Grade 1s, amassing £1,343,822 in prize-money to propel the Tizzards to the top table of National Hunt trainers.
However, it would be nearly three years after his Champion Bumper romp before Cue Card would taste Grade 1 success again. That was largely down to the crop of novice hurdlers and chasers Cue Card was to bump into. A far-from-disgraced fourth when favourite in the Supreme Novices’ was followed by a novice chase campaign where he bumped into the likes of Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth and the formidable Sprinter Sacre, who beat Cue Card by nine lengths in the Arkle.
As Cue Card stepped into open chase company he began to show glimpses of that brilliance first demonstrated in his youth. A 26-length victory in the Haldon Gold Cup off a mark of 157 in 2012 had many thinking Cue Card could go on to great things with no Sprinter Sacre in the way over longer trips.
However, a 20-length thumping when fifth of nine in the King George was followed by a slightly fortunate success in the Ascot Chase, as Captain Chris made a terrible blunder two from home. Going into the Ryanair Chase, Cue Card still had plenty of questions to answer. But, boy, did he answer them. Cue Card was in a league of his own as he powered clear of First Lieutenant by nine lengths – a day that lives long in the memory for Tizzard.
“He was a dream to ride that day. We decided not to interfere with him so I just dropped my hands and left it to him, and as soon I got to the front after the third, Champagne Court took him on, but Cue Card was just waiting. I was in heaven at that point as I knew all he was doing was filling himself up and when we came down the hill it was so exciting because I knew I had loads of petrol left. It was a brilliant performance.”
A young Cue Card had often been keen during his races but his Ryanair success was the first time he really learned to settle and that gave connections hope when he stepped back up to three miles in the 2014-15 season, where he struck with immediate success when winning a stellar Betfair Chase.
“It was a learning process for him up until that Ryanair,” adds Tizzard. “It took him 18 months or so of running in premier races and a few defeats for him to realise you can’t be as keen as that. In the end he always raced behind the bridle.”
Cue Card went to the second of his five career runs in the King George as the 100-30 joint-favourite and approaching two out looked destined for a wide-margin victory.
However, by the time he got to the final fence, Cue Card was beaten, the petrol gauge down to empty as Silviniaco Conti won by three and a half lengths. Injury ruled him out of a tilt at the Gold Cup that year and the next time we would see Cue Card would be with a different jockey as Daryl Jacob took over from the retiring Tizzard.
Cue Card’s 2014-15 season was the most disappointing of his career and Tizzard is quick to point out how unlucky Jacob was.
“I always felt sorry for Daryl because he never got to ride the brilliant Cue Card,” he adds. “He just wasn’t at his best that season and he got a really bad overreach in the King George that ruled him out of Cheltenham. Then the following season when Paddy [Brennan] got on he found a new lease of life.”
It is in the face of adversity when true legends show what they’re made of and it was during the incredible season of 2015-16 that Cue Card rose to legendary status. The season he would become the People’s Horse.
Cue Card had looked a shadow of the horse he promised to be in prior seasons and the Tizzards decided to give him a wind-op, a decision that would transform Cue Card’s career.
“One day on the gallops he just made this horrific noise. We got him on the machine and saw it was a trapped epiglottis. I’m just thankful that it happened at home and not in a race as he may have never put himself under that sort of pressure again. Thankfully it was fixed and it sorted him out.”
Sorted him out it certainly did as Cue Card sauntered to victory on his comeback run in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby, a race which marked the start of his blossoming relationship with new jockey Paddy Brennan.
“I was actually hoping to get the phone call a year earlier because I’d ridden a bit for the owners,” says Brennan. “And then when Aidan Coleman got the leg up at Punchestown I thought that was it.
“Then in the summer Mr [Bob] Bishop rang me out of the blue and asked me if I wanted the ride and, of course, I was delighted for the opportunity.
“The first time I sat on him was during a piece of work at Wincanton where he worked with Theatre Guide, who Joe was sat on. We went a nice gallop and got to the furlong marker and Joe said to let him on. So I let him go and got to the line and he was 15 lengths clear! It was seriously impressive and that was the first time I thought I could be riding something really special.”
Cue Card added a second Betfair Chase, the first of the £1m Triple Crown (Betfair, King George, Gold Cup), recording a seven-length victory over Silviniaco Conti as he went to Kempton on Boxing Day hoping to make it fourth time lucky in the King George. With the hugely exciting duo Vautour and Don Cossack coming over from Ireland, two-time winner Silviniaco Conti and runaway Hennessy winner Smad Place lining up, this was arguably Cue Card’s hardest of his King George attempts.
But transformed after his wind-op and inspired by his army of supporters, Cue Card found a second wind in the final furlong to chin longtime leader Vautour on the line as the Kempton crowd erupted in a collective gasp as the pair hit the line. Brennan thinks he may have got there, Ruby thinks he’s beaten, but as the seconds and then minutes go by with no announcement from the judge, was this too close to call?
“There were words coming out of Ruby Walsh’s mouth that are not fit for print, so I thought if he thinks he’s beat I must have won. But the longer the wait went on for the judge to call it, the more I thought maybe I haven’t. I asked the judge after what took you so long? And he said it was because the crowd were going crazy so they had to wait for the announcement.
“Vautour was an unbelievable talent and to beat him in that fashion, it was just Cue Card’s day. When you’re in the zone during the race you can’t hear the crowd, but after he won and I took it all in, that’s when you know how special it was.”
With two legs of the Triple Crown down, and having fully established himself as a fans’ favourite, Cue Card was set for his day of destiny in the Gold Cup. Everything appeared to be going to plan and approaching three from the finish Cue Card came alive as he cruised into contention.
But just as the dream looked set to be alive, fate would deliver a dagger to the hearts of his legion of fans as Cue Card took a crashing fall, leaving Don Cossack and Djakadam to fight out the finish. The would he? or wouldn’t he? debate is one that still goes on to this day, but Brennan, who took years to get over the fall, is of no doubt who’d have won that day.
“I’m convinced I would have won,” says Brennan. “It will always be the one that got away. To make a move like I did on a Saturday would have been bad, but to do it in a Gold Cup on a horse like Cue Card going for the million pound bonus, it was bad. It took me two years to get over it and it will be in the back of my mind for the rest of my life.
“He confused me for the first three-quarters of the race as I was never happy with how he was going. I kept saying him ‘where are you, what’s going on?’ Then when he jumped the fences at the top of the hill he just came alive and that is why I know he was going to finish so well because the whole race he was racing behind the bridle.
“Once I asked him for a little more he just sparked into life as if he was jumping the second fence. No horse should be able to do that at that point in the race. It’s my job as the jockey to say no, don’t let him in there, but I gave him the encouragement and he took it.”
Brennan had already bagged a Gold Cup with Imperial Commander, a horse who also won a Ryanair earlier in his career, but that’s where the similarities between the pair end.
“Imperial Commander was a much easier ride than Cue Card. You could put him anywhere in the race and he would jump, but Cue Card was not an easy ride. To many Cue Card looked like a good jumper but you always had to be on the ball with him. He needed pressure on all the time, whereas Imperial Commander would just pop them.”
Cue Card then went some way to answering the Gold Cup debate when hacking up in the Aintree Bowl by nine lengths before defeat at Punchestown when a hard season had probably taken its toll.
Defeat on his Charlie Hall reappearance was followed by a third and final win in the Betfair Chase, before going on to his fifth King George, where he would taste defeat to stablemate Thistlecrack.
Despite finishing second, he was comfortably beaten by Thistlecrack and finished in a heap of four horses, leaving some to question whether we would see Cue Card on top of a Grade 1 podium again.
But, just like he did throughout his career, Cue Card answered his critics with a stunning 15-length win in the Ascot Chase, setting up another tilt at the Gold Cup where he would come to grief again, at the same third-last fence. This time was different as Cue Card wasn’t travelling nearly as well as the previous year and as an 11-year-old was perhaps not the horse he once was.
Another fall was to come in the 2017 Charlie Hall and Brennan admits there is pressure to look after all horses, but even more so when they have the following Cue Card did.
“Cue Card was like no other horse I had ridden in my life. He came with responsibility. Every time he fell you were just pleading for him to get up – like you would with every horse – but with him he was the people’s horse and everywhere I went all anyone would ask me about is Cue Card and that made him very special.”
Cue Card would not taste another victory in his final season as a 12-year-old, but his final three starts were at Grade 1 level – two of which he finished a gallant runner-up to young protagonists Bristol De Mai and Waiting Patiently – which is a testament to the horse’s attitude. Age may have caught up with him, but his heart was still beating as strong as ever – as were the hearts of his fans.
He was pulled up on his final start in the Ryanair, where he received a huge applause as he came back to the stands, an applause similar to when Kauto Star pulled up on his final Gold Cup star.
Cue Card may have been beaten, but he was not defeated and the joy he brought to many racing fans will never be forgotten. You only have to walk around the Tizzards’ state-of-the-art training facility to see the legacy Cue Card has left behind. A legacy he is still very much apart of, as he is now looked after by Joe’s wife Rachel, where he has a home for life.
A fitting end to a marvellous career.
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