To a degree, the spectres of Christmas past still haunt the race. Kauto Star himself will lead the parade, after all, so providing his trainer and owner with the opportunity to show festive atonement after their mortifying public row over his new career. And the retired champion, who won the William Hill King George VI Chase for a record fifth time last year, will also have his representatives among those relieved to be jumping off without him. Long Run, Kauto Star's biggest rival in the evening of his career, has been transformed from usurper to ambassador; while family honour could yet be upheld by Kauto Star's half-brother, Kauto Stone.
But Kempton on Boxing Day could also mark the start of a new order in the steeplechasing elite. Admittedly, one of the most plausible graduates from the novice ranks, Al Ferof, is out for the season after a setback last week. Another, however, retains every right to consummate the potential he first announced by thrashing Al Ferof in the 2010 Champion Bumper.
Cue Card has sometimes seemed to disclose his limitations since. Al Ferof reversed form when they returned to the Cheltenham Festival over hurdles, and Cue Card managed to win only two of five chases as a novice. But it was plainly no disgrace to finish second to the extraordinary Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle Chase, and a runaway win at Exeter on his reappearance has emboldened connections that he has now strengthened sufficiently to discover a new lease of life over three miles.
Not without a degree of healthy debate, however. Every day, his trainer and jockey convene at 6.30am round a Dorset farmhouse table and discuss plans over a cup of coffee. "It's not just Cue Card," Joe Tizzard said. "It's the cows, it's what goes in which field, everything goes up for debate. And then Dad decides in the end!"
The jockey's grin made plain a harmless mischief at the expense of the trainer, Colin. It was Tizzard Jnr, after all, who had been keenest to revert to two miles with Cue Card in the Arkle. "But we're all strong people, Mum and my sister as well, and we all put our two penn'orth in," Tizzard said. "We went through all the options with Cue Card, but we've got a horse good enough to take part in the King George – and we want to be there."
Testing ground will permit Cue Card no hiding place as he explores his stamina, but Tizzard radiates confidence. "I gave him a school last Monday," he said. "And he's jumping out of his skin. We were quite confident he'd win at Exeter, but not the way he did. That was probably the best feel he's ever given me. He floated along, had them beaten turning in. When he won the Champion Bumper, I thought he was going to be top-class – and then he's had a tough division as a novice, both over hurdles and fences. I just think he's coming to the peak of his career, I really do. He's the best we've ever had him, starting to fulfil the potential we always thought he had."
For Tizzard, the chance to win a race like this for his father would represent the ripening of a precocious talent. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since his teenage emergence, when picked out by Paul Nicholls as the ideal jockey to share his own young ambitions. At 32, Tizzard can look back on the disillusion that followed with a seasoned detachment – and savour the rewards he has ultimately found in a flourishing family concern.
"It's a dream for us, to have Cue Card in our yard," he said. "That's what we're in it for, to find horses like him. But he's not the only one – we've got some really talented youngsters coming through. And, as a partner in the business, I get doubly good things back, and doubly bad too. I can no longer get off a horse in the parade ring after it has run badly, and run off to hide in the weighing room. Between us, we have to find out what went wrong.
"From a jockey's point of view, it would be great to ride a horse like this for anyone – but I'm doing it for family, and for owners we've known seven or eight years now, a lovely couple who have been very supportive to me and the yard."
Tizzard noted that, Long Run apart, several of the other key protagonists on Wednesday are in a similar boat to Cue Card, with stamina to prove. "Horses by his sire all get a trip and his mother ran in the Grand National," he said. "From what he shows at home, we think he will. If he doesn't, we'll drop back in trip. Simple as that.
"But he will get it. I've got a good feeling about him. I've a lot of faith in the horse. He could be impressive."
- More about:
- Athletics, Track And Field
- Christian Holidays
- Horse Racing And Harness Racing
- Running (sport)
- Sprint Running