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Cheltenham Festival: Victories for Cue Card and Solwhit fail to mask drop in class in day three

The rest of the card was mostly attrition for the punters

Even in providing two perfectly deserving Grade One winners, the third day of this meeting contrived to reiterate its status as a relative hiatus in quality. For the big races not only measured the dependable qualities of Cue Card and Solwhit, but also evoked two others who have soared rather closer to greatness. The former had fled from another thrashing from Sprinter Sacre, while the latter had to reel in a rival who was only here as a substitute for Big Buck’s. Together, however, they showed that the fulfilment of class is first and foremost a matter of constitution.

Cue Card has now run here four times. He won the bumper in his youth, finished just behind Sprinter Sacre when they came third and fourth in a novice hurdle, and then followed him home at a suitably respectful distance in the Arkle Chase last year. Connections gave long consideration to again trying their luck against the sport’s latest phenomenon here on Wednesday, but ultimately decided that it would be asking for trouble and opted instead for the Ryanair Chase.

Not that the longer race promised to be any kind of cakewalk. Its sponsors had persuaded Mouse Morris – who might well suggest a more apposite verb – to switch their horse, First Lieutenant, from the Gold Cup. Following the dramatic news of injury to Davy Russell, their silks were instead worn by 20-year-old Bryan Cooper, who had just sealed his status as the rising star of Irish jump racing with a breakthrough Festival success on Benefficient in the opener. But Joe Tizzard, himself barely an adolescent when winning the Foxhunters’ Chase here in 1998, sent Cue Card bounding into the lead and, though escorted by Champion Court for a time, they were always in control.

Three out, First Lieutenant made an uncharacteristic error. Suddenly Cue Card was clear, and the favourite looked flat-footed. Here was the moment when it became clear why Morris had wanted to go for the longer race. First Lieutenant did gamely outstay For Non Stop for second – his trainer’s third of the meeting – but Cue Card had flown. He was driven out by nine lengths for yet another great family success here this week.

Cue Card is trained by Tizzard’s father, Colin, on their farm in Dorset. But theirs is no mere bucolic pipedream. Cue Card is the flagbearer of an expanding and ambitious stable, which had already celebrated a runaway handicap success on the opening day. “I’m glad it’s over because there’s been a lot of pressure the past fortnight,” Tizzard Sr said. “I have found it quite hard. And today he did everything we thought he would. They went a true old gallop and he jumped fast and fluent. It was a beautiful ride from Joe, and having your son on the horse is the pinnacle. Then again it does have its reverse, when things go wrong! The beautiful thing about it is that this horse loves Cheltenham. He made my spine tingle in the bumper but we have come to expect it from him now.”

You could set your clock, likewise, by Solwhit. The Ladbrokes World Hurdle was his ninth Grade One success, and also the most wonderful – being his first since a tendon injury. He was sidelined for nearly two years, but Charles Byrnes was convinced the flame still burned at nine. Stepping him up to three miles for the first time, the Co Limerick trainer booked the per-fect man for the job in Paul Carberry.

With Oscar Whisky never looking comfortable and eventually pulled up, Solwhit closed stealthily from off the pace as Celestial Halo – carrying the familiar Big Buck’s colours of Andy Stewart, but unconsidered at 40-1 – mounted a startling challenge to Bog Warrior. As Bog Warrior dropped away, Carberry set after Celestial Halo and Solwhit saw out the climb to the line to win by two and a half lengths, with Smad Place again finishing third.

“We never lost faith in him,” Byrnes said. “In the past he was one of the few horses who could put it up to Hurricane Fly. He developed a bit of heat in a leg, but we always believed he still had all his old ability. In the last couple of weeks especially he has really come together. I’ve no doubt he would have beaten Big Buck’s if he’d been here last year.”

He will duly aim to bring him back in 2014, when it is hoped that an ageing Big Buck’s will be back to resolve that bold claim. This was a first success for the Irish since 1995 – and a gratifying moment for his artistic rider. “The English have been dominating this race, and there was also Baracouda for France, so it’s great to ride an Irish winner,” Carberry said. “I’ve been runner-up in a Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle, but I’m not usually riding the big horses in the big races, so this is the top.”

The rest of the card was mostly attrition for the punters, with a series of favourites turned over by outsiders – but due perspective was restored when J.T. McNamara, a top Irish amateur, was airlifted to hospital after a fall in the Kim Muir. His injuries were being assessed, but officials reported him to have been conscious.