Racing: Thriller can put fear into Cup rivals

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The Independent Online
IF DOUBLE THRILLER is indeed a horse of Gold Cup potential it seems we will have to wait until the afternoon of 18 March for official confirmation.

This colossus of a former hunter chaser scared off the opposition on his Wincanton debut for Paul Nicholls last month, and there will be even more timidity back in Somerset today when just three rivals of dubious distinction wrestle with the nine-year-old for the Jim Ford Chase. Double Thriller can earn little but the prizemoney in victory, and, if he loses, his Blue Riband aspirations will wither and die in the West Country cold.

Double Thriller is available at 10-1 (with Ladbrokes) for the Gold Cup, not on the evidence of his sole outing this year, when he was merely squashing ants, but as a consequence of the Champion Hunters' Chase at Cheltenham last April. Around 12 lengths behind him that day was an animal we were to recognise a lot more easily in the coming months. Teeton Mill subsequently went on to become the highest-rated steeplechaser in the land.

Some judges say that the Prestbury Park race is inadmissable evidence, as Teeton Mill had only just arrived at the demanding gymnasium run by Venetia Williams. Camp Double Thriller forwards a different analysis. "Obviously Teeton Mill has improved with Venetia, but he was with Caroline Saunders [the leading point-to-point trainer] before her and she certainly knows what she's doing," Nicholls said yesterday. "So you'd think he was fairly fit at Cheltenham, while Double Thriller had his problems.

"That result could not have been a total fluke, but I still keep hoping that the Cheltenham race was really true. And just because Teeton Mill has achieved what he has done, doesn't mean our horse could have accomplished all those things. But what he did at Wincanton the other day certainly gave us a very big clue, plus what he has done at home since with what I would call very decent horses."

Double Thriller was ridden at Cheltenham by the young man who is now stable jockey at Ditcheat. "Joe [Tizzard] didn't stop talking about the horse for a month afterwards and said we had to get him in training," Nicholls said. "So it was a great pleasure when Reg [Wilkins, who formerly prepared the gelding] rang up and said we could have him."

Old Reg was the man behind the 1994 Foxhunters' Chase winner Double Silk. He pets his horses and treats them as though they are made of tissue. It must have been quite a shock for Double Thriller when he was called up to Fort Nicholls. "To start with, the horse didn't have a clue," Nicholls said. "Reg had trained him differently, like he was a hunter; he was kind to him and gave him time. Now we've got stuck into him and the improvement he made between November and Wincanton was incredible."

The horse himself, as much as the improvement, was incredible. "He was very impressive wasn't he?" the trainer said. "I know he was only running off [a handicap mark of] 129, but whatever had run off a rating like that with top weight could not have done it better. He travelled well, he jumped well, he did everything right.

"We haven't done a great deal with him since because I want the run to bring him on again. The great thing is that he shouldn't have a hard race, which is the last thing you need before a Gold Cup. And that helps with the Aintree option."

Double Thriller (2.35) cannot be opposed today, but his Cheltenham prospects are far less golden, not least because of his trainer's fortunes at the meeting. Nicholls's terrible Festival record suggests that ancestors of his must have once desecrated a burial ground at the foot of Cleeve Hill.

Still, he has three live shots in the Gold Cup this year, as See More Business and Earthmover should also be there with spear and shield. The latter has been earthshaker as much as Earthmover this season, falling at Newton Abbot and then bucking off Tizzard at Newbury. If he does not reach the end of the course at Haydock on Saturday his Cheltenham hopes will hit the terminus.

There is another whiff of the Cotswolds provided on Wincanton's richest ever card by the Kingwell Hurdle, which, in the past, has proved a minor bauble for the likes of Alderbrook, Kribensis, Lanzarote and Bula as they marched on to collect the Champion Hurdle itself.

Half of today's six-strong field are entered for the big one, but even if Grey Shot, Midnight Legend and Upgrade ran it in relay Istabraq would probably still get the better of them.

Grey Shot (3.10) was tried over further last time, but, oddly for a horse who won the Jockey Club and Goodwood Cups on the Flat, he seemed to run out of puff. Like Double Thriller he is a course-and-distance winner. Unlike Double Thriller, he will be at a backable price.