All across sport, there are painful cases of the one big chance sailing by, never to come again. This Gold Cup will show whether Cue Card’s dramatic tumble at the third-last fence 12 months ago belongs on the sorry list of gilded opportunities that end up as lifetime regrets.
The jockey, Paddy Brennan, pretty much admits he messed it up, and has already paid a high psychological price for a tactical error that contributed to Cue Card’s fall last year: an accident that left Brennan “struggling to get out of bed” the next day, such was his torment. More than any National Hunt race – even the Grand National – the Gold Cup is the test that confers immortality on a chaser. Cue Card deserves it, for his exploits over seven years and in 35 National Hunt races, but has the chance passed him by?
Advancing age is a handicap at this level, where the 3m 2f 70yd journey over undulating ground tests cruising speed, jumping ability and stamina all at once. That maelstrom of physical pressure favours horses that are 10 or under. Cue Card is 11. The last Gold Cup winner older than 10 was the 12-year-old What A Myth in 1969, 48 years ago.
In a race born in 1924, the only other winners over 10 were Mandarin (1962), Silver Frame (1951), Cottage Rake (1950), Prince Regent (1946), Red Rower (1945) and Thrown In (1927). Oldies have been pushed out. Cool Dawn (10) in 1998 was the last double-digit victor.
On form, Cue Card remains the classiest in a field missing Thistlecrack, his stable companion, who deposed him as King George VI Chase winner in a thrilling victory at Kempton on Boxing Day. Thistlecrack’s win was meant to denote a changing of the guard but he has since succumbed to injury, while Cue Card returned to winning ways at Ascot last month. Jump racing must have its ‘People’s Horse’, its darling of the Festival, and Cue Card is still deserving of those tags.
But without a Gold Cup win, history will lodge him in the tier below the Cotswold legends. There are some illustrious names in the nearly-horse category. Pendil won 18 of his 20 races over fences but was twice beaten at odds-in in the Gold Cup. Wayward Lad won three King George VI Chases but was the third horse home of the Michael Dickinson-trained ‘famous five’ in 1983, and was edged out by Dawn Run three years later. Cue Card has won the Betfair Chase three times and the 2015 King George – nine Grade One races in all, and over a million pounds in prize-money – but is tantalisingly poised on the edge of Gold Cup fame.
If owner Jean Bishop and trainer Colin Tizzard feel that nag, Brennan has it raging through his head. In a recent interview with The Guardian, all his demons came dancing out. Recalling the fall of 12 months ago, Brennan said: “I thought: ‘I want to die.’ I didn’t want to get up. I felt sick with weird thoughts going through my head. It was scary. Those feelings lasted for two minutes. I thought: ‘I’ll lie here for the rest of my life or I’ll get up and do something about it.’ And then, f---, I did get up.
“I got back to the weighing room and Jamie Moore ran over and hugged me. He didn’t need to say anything. He knew. Jamie’s a special person; and a special friend. I could see people talking and you get paranoid. I left in a hurry. I should have been more professional and spoken to the press and Jean Bishop but, in that situation, you don’t know what you’re doing. I had a phone call when I was a mile down the road: ‘Jean just cares about you and Cue Card. Don’t worry.’ ”
Brennan’s mistake, as he remembers it, was pulling Cue Card out and into a gap to avoid jumping the third-last behind Djakadam. “He jumped in [to the fence] too early,” Brennan says. “If there’s one thing I could change in my whole life, it’s that movement, but I can never fix that”.
“We thought his chance might have gone, but he has an equally good chance this year,” Tizzard says. “The Gold Cup is a very big strain on the owner, trainer and jockey. None of us ever expected Cue Card to fall as he has always been a very neat and accurate jumper. At the time it was great that he just got back up. Paddy just took it as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cue Card has been, and still is, a Grade One horse and I don’t think he’s wilting yet.”
Bishop was also sharply affected by a mishap that brought a hush to the Cheltenham crowd. “When I saw him go down I stopped watching the race,” she says. “To tell you the truth, my mind was blank. It had come as such a shock that he had fallen. All credit to the horse for coming back. I want him to win. It’s for everybody. I think he deserves it. He is coming to the end of his career and it would be a great reward for all that he’s done. He has given a lot of people a lot of pleasure. It would be a reward for them, the Tizzards and Paddy Brennan.”
This stoicism, and this forgiveness, can only swell the number of punters who want Cue Card to defy time in a race that will also stretch his stamina to the limit. The heart will tighten as he approaches the last three fences. Brennan’s might be kicking inside his chest. In 2010, Cue Card was the precocious winner of the Champion Bumper on this course at 40-1. Seven years on, a role is still laid out for him as elderly Gold Cup winner. What price redemption?