Colin Tizzard has had a love affair with the Festival ever since he arrived as a young teenage farmer with a few quid in his pocket. Now, 45 years on, he’s a Gold Cup winning trainer, writes James Toney at Cheltenham.
Tizzard’s Native River and Might Bite – who was seeking to give Nicky Henderson an unprecedented sweep of the Festival’s big three races – duelled it out in a two-horse race that will live in the memory.
Stride for stride and fence for fence, it was a gripping head-to-head that soon left the rest running for the minor places.
Johnson took his charge out in a memorable display of front-running, piloting him in total confidence that the conditions – the worst here in three decades – were on his side.
Might Bite, usually so quirky, stuck to his task professionally but – in the final analysis – was probably caught out by less than ideal ground, though he battled with heart all the way to the line and his day here will surely come.
After another race had gone the way of the Irish earlier in the day, Tizzard was asked about the future of British racing.
“Probably doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I’ll be back milking my cows in the few years.”
The trainer had watched the previous evening’s Tattersalls sale with a growing sense of gloom. Irish trainers had taken 12 of the previous 14 races and their agents were splashing the cash and pricing Tizzard out of the market.
Perhaps it was finally time to focus on the farm.
But fortunes can change quickly here at Cheltenham, a place that sends you from crushing low to dizzying high and back again.
Last year Tizzard was odds-on to land at least one Festival race and didn’t win any and he was clearly emotional after long-shot Kilbricken Storm won just before the Gold Cup to get him off the mark.
Minutes later and he was floating above Cleeve Hill in dreamland.
“This is unreal,” he said. “The Irish have been winning everything and I was worried about our form and then Richard Johnson gives that brave horse that sort of ride and it all changes, just like that.
“When Might Bite came up alongside I thought ‘oh, no’ but Richard was brilliant and instinctively knew what to do.
“He was third last year and he wasn’t right after that race. We couldn’t get him going this season and I was getting jumpy. We made a plan to give him one run at Newbury and then head here and it’s paid off.
“I just can’t believe I’ve won the Gold Cup. It doesn’t seem real. I came here at 17 as a young farmer just because I loved the racing, I can’t believe that I’m here as a Gold Cup winning trainer now, it just means the world to me and my family and the whole team.”
Champion jockey Johnson was just as emotional after the win, which came 18 years after his first and last Gold Cup success on Looks Like Trouble, though he picked up a seven day suspension and £6,550 for fine for excessive use of the whip in the mad dash to the line.
“I can’t believe it’s been 18 years and I’m going to enjoy this one,” he said.
“I was a passenger, he just loves jumping and every time I asked something from him, he just jumped better. He answered every call and has won a Gold Cup in testing conditions, that’s the mark of a champion.
“Some people dream of winning the Grand National but this is the one for me – it’s the best of the best. To win it once defines your career and twice is just so special. I’m just very lucky and he’s only eight, and hopefully we’ve got more of these days to come.”
Henderson, stolidly calm in defeat, was one of the first to congratulate Tizzard but admitted the ground probably made the difference for his charge Might Bite.
“He’s done nothing wrong but he were taking on a horse who loves these conditions and we don’t,” he said.
“He tried his socks off and did nothing wrong at all. He’s a young horse and he’s got a big future. We will try again next year, try to win the King George Chase again and try to win this too.
“I’m delighted for Colin and Dicky, it’s nice to have an English winner at least after this week.”