Nicholls: Cue Card the one we all have to beat
Paul Nicholls is the King George king. No-one has come close to his incredible nine successes in the sparkling showpiece of the Christmas calendar – and while Colin Tizzard may be unable to split his star duo in the big race, Nicholls is firmly of the opinion that Cue Card is the one.
Like Tizzard, bookmakers are struggling to separate Cue Card and Thistlecrack in the Boxing Day spectacular, but the champion trainer, who saddles dual winner Silviniaco Conti, is siding with experience, as befits the man who trained Kauto Star to an epic five wins in the Kempton contest.
"I think Cue Card's the one we all have to beat," says Nicholls. "He's last year's winner, he's in the form of his life. He's had all that experience in Grade 1 chases. That's why he's favourite.
"Thistlecrack's a very good horse, but he's a novice up against a battle-hardened Grade 1 chaser. It'll be a good race, I know that much."
Nicholls believes it will be a good race to watch for all except Tizzard and his team. Having trained and campaigned Kauto Star and Denman to meet in four Gold Cups he knows better than anyone the added discomfort the Tizzard camp will feel come 3.15pm on Monday.
He said: "It's odd because on the one hand you're aware you're in a very lucky position to have two such good horses that you're running them against each other in a race like that, but at the same time it's bloody nerve-racking.
"Colin's obviously delighted to be in that situation, as I was when I had Kauto Star and Denman. You just have to treat them all the same and run them on their merits and the best horse always comes out on top on the day. But it's not good for the nerves."
The ten-year-old Silviniaco Conti, whose victories in 2013 and 2014 increased Nicholls' amazing tally to nine following Kauto Star's record-breaking efforts and See More Business's two successes, was not a guaranteed runner earlier this week, but now he will take his chance.
Nicholls explained: "It's cut up. There's only seven in it and if we hadn't run him at Haydock and were coming here off the back of him running so well at Down Royal, then I'd be very keen on running him.
"He had a day's hunting with the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale, which he thoroughly enjoyed. He also had a little gallop at Wincanton last week and he's fresh and well, so with seven runners I think we probably have to let him run.
"I know now I ran him again too quickly at Haydock. The funny thing is I did the same once with Kauto Star – he went to Down Royal then ran at Haydock and he unseated Sam Thomas at the last. But we've had a month since then and he seems in much better form."
While Nicholls favours Cue Card, his former ally Ruby Walsh, who partnered Kauto Star to all his victories in the race, is firmly in the Thistlecrack camp.
Writing on his Paddy Power blog, Walsh said: "This is the smallest field I can remember for a King George in a long time – and it can play into Thistlecrack’s hands.
"Don’t get me wrong, winning a King George will be no gimme and he’ll have to be on his game to beat Cue Card. But he can overcome his inexperience and the small field may be more of an advantage to Tom Scudamore this time than Cue Card’s battle-hardened experience is to Paddy Brennan.
Thistlecrack was last night challenging his stablemate for favouritism, with Betway breaking rank to promote him to the head of their betting.
The firm, who make the Gold Cup favourite 5-4 (from 11-8) while Cue Card has been pushed out to 11-8 from 6-5, report it has been one-way traffic in support for the novice since connections confirmed his participation on Monday.
The position is a reversal of the order for most other layers, with Thistlecrack 11-8 virtually across the board while Cue Card is no bigger than 5-4 with Ladbrokes and Sky Bet.
“Ante-post punters thought they had Christmas paid for with Cue Card in the King George but all the money has been for Thistlecrack since the declarations,” said Betway spokesman Alan Alger, who described the weight of money for last season’s World Hurdle winner as a flood.
The firm make Thistlecrack 5-6 to go off favourite for the race, with Cue Card an even-money chance.