Joe Lively steps up his game to earn tilt at Gold Cup glory

Tizzards' bargain buy takes earnings to over £200,000 as he heads for Festival
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On a FA Cup Saturday, giant-killing anywhere must be considered appropriate, and after knocking over the equivalent of Championship opposition yesterday, the barely considered Joe Lively earned a tilt at the Manchester Uniteds and Liverpools of the equine world in the Cheltenham Gold Cup here in March.

The tiny 10-year-old's odds for the chasing crown were slashed after his dogged two-and-three-quarter-length defeat of Halcon Genelardais, though against the might of the likes of Denman and Kauto Star he is still a rank outsider, as long a shot as 40-1.

But, nothing daunted, his trainer, Colin Tizzard, now has that Friday 13th ringed in his diary. "We'll play the big game," he said. "He's earned his place and we may never have anothergood enough. We bought him to run in sellers, for heaven's sake, but every time we've asked him [to go] up in grade he's answered."

Two fences out in the Letheby & Christopher Chase, run in bright sunshine overhead but testing, cloying conditions underfoot, Joe Lively's victory looked unlikely. To that point the 11-1 chance had blazed the cheerful, springheeled trail that makes his name so fitting but he hit the obstacle hard, handing the advantage to Halcon Genelardais. But when a horse has a racing heart, no situation is hopeless.

"I thought that was it," admitted Tizzard. "He landed sideways and it looked like a tired mistake, but he never gives up. He's amazing, such a courageous little chap. We've been to the well with him more than a few times now, and he keeps dishing it up for us."

Joe Lively is always ridden by Tizzard's son Joe, and the jockey said he was as close to tears of admiration and gratitude as he had ever been on a horse after yesterday's success. "He is just so, so brave," he said. "He's only small, but most of him must be heart and he does love it here."

The gelding, who may also have the Grand National on his agenda if the handicapper does not react too harshly to yesterday's events, cost just 4,500 guineas as a crock at auction three years ago, and has now earned more than £200,000. Four of his seven wins over fences have come at Cheltenham, including a 14-length defeat of Halcon Genelardais in November. Then he was receiving 23lb from his rival, this time he gave him 6lb.

Joe Lively, who carries the colours of Richard Dimond, his rider's godfather, is easily the best of the string of just 35 at Venn Farm, near Sher-borne. "I milk 250 cows and have250 acres of corn," said Tizzard. "I wouldn't be a bad farmer if I didn't mess about with these horses."

Plans are on hold for yesterday's 5-2 favourite Halcon Genelardais, who finished fourth in the Gold Cup last year, but the race did eliminate Tidal Bay, 18 lengths third, and Star de Mohaison, a fading fourth, from the Festival's chasing showpiece. Tidal Bay now has the shorter Ryanair Chase as his target and Star de Mohaison one of the handicaps.

Five days after one Cheltenham icon retired, the hunt for another remained inconclusive. Twelve months ago,Inglis Drever won the Cleeve Hurdle on his way to his unprecedented third marathon crown; yesterday's winner, Big Buck's, and four-length runner-up Punchestowns, conceding 8lb, both put forward valid World Hurdle claims.

Big Buck's, better known as a chaser, is now two from two over the smaller obstacles since unseating at the last in the Hennessy Gold Cup in November. "I have a lot of faith in his ability," said his trainer, Paul Nicholls, "and we've got plenty of good chasers, and he's only six, so why not go back to hurdles?"

Punchestowns, the 10-11 favourite yesterday, ceded his place as World Hurdle favourite to the French raider Kasbah Bliss, but Henderson remains unfazed. "He's a big, stuffy horse and he needed to have a run," he said, "but we've left plenty up our sleeve."

Among the younger brigade of hurdlers, the two Festival trials produced no surprises, with winning favourites, but a pleasing symmetry. In the two- and-a-half-mile novices' Grade Two contest, Diamond Harry, trained by Nick Williams, retained his unbeatenrecord with a hard-fought half-length defeat of Bensalem, from the Alan King yard. In the juvenile race, King's charge Walkon had to work to see off Williams' Reve de Sivola a length and a quarter with, again, the rest miles behind.

The pecking order among the Irish challenge for the Champion Hurdle may be sorted today at Leopardstown when Sublimity, Brave Inca, Hardy Eustace and Muirhead clash in the local version of the two-miler.