Cut in distance leaves Cue Card holding all the aces


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The Independent Online

The last day of an old year is as good a time as any to look to the future. Racing is unusual among sports that callow young beginners regularly compete on the same programmes as seasoned veterans, rather than being tucked away at junior meets or youth squad matches. And their presence in the public eye from the start makes the tracing of real talent all the more absorbing, though it's spotting not necessarily easier.

Take yesterday's contests over the years. The two-and-a-quarter mile novice chase generally signposts a decent horse, but it would perhaps have taken Nostradamus himself to predict the glories awaiting the white-blazed ex-French four-year-old who won the 2004 running. Or the subsequent career of the massive liver chestnut gelding who took the Challow Hurdle five seasons ago.

Only time will tell whether Cue Card or Fingal Bay, the latest winners of the two races, can follow the hoof prints of, respectively, Kauto Star and Denman. Or whether any of the other victors on a dank grey afternoon can become a Bindaree, a Bonanza Boy, a Diamond Harry, a Wichita Lineman or a Planet Of Sound.

Cue Card, who like all thoroughbreds has his official birthday today, is even at the tender age of six the veteran of two Cheltenham Festivals, having won the bumper and last year run fourth in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Yesterday was something of a test-run in his embryonic chasing career, a drop back in trip after being out-stayed over further. And after his high cruising speed brought a four-length success, his target in March was confirmed as the two-mile Arkle Trophy.

"We'd been trying to jack him up in distance", said his trainer Colin Tizzard. "Those bumper winners generally end up as three-milers and his dam ran in a Grand National. But we were wrong."

Cue Card's trailblazing pace and accurate jumping out of holding ground put the technique of his rivals, notably favourite Walkon, under pressure. "He's a strong-staying two-miler," said his rider, trainer's son Joe, "just what you want up that Cheltenham hill." Jean Bishop's gelding is now as short as 8-1 fourth choice for the Festival event.

Fingal Bay, another fine big horse, will undoubtedly one day ply his trade as a staying chaser. In the meantime he is leading the way in his first season over hurdles, making it five from five in yesterday's Grade One contest. His success, by a driven-out length as a 1-4 favourite from a 25-1 shot, was workmanlike rather than brilliant.

"He idled once he was in front," said his trainer Philip Hobbs. "He never does much more than he has to and even though he's tough he's still quite green." Hobbs has made no secret of the regard in which he holds Roger Skan's young colourbearer and what may prove a landmark horse for his trainer is already that for his rider Richard Johnson. The five-year-old was his 100th winner of the season, a 16th successive century for the perennial runner-up to Tony McCoy for the jockeys' title.

McCoy, nursing ribs broken in a fall on Friday, is on 174 winners and though he has acknowledged that his quest for 300 in the season is no longer realistic, he has – ominously for Johnson and the rest of the weighing room – declared his determination to make his absence days rather than weeks.

Alan King, who often has an impact on the Triumph Hurdle, strengthened this year's hand when Vendor took yesterday's juvenile hurdle, despite blundering at the last. The winner four seasons ago, Celestial Halo, went on to victory in the Cheltenham championship and, with a certain pleasing symmetry, won yesterday's finale, showing his class to score under top weight.