If Cue Card was a contestant on a television talent show, he would be a triple threat. Cue Card has it all: the raw ability, the stage presence and a boy-next-door backstory in a sport normally dominated by the super-rich. If he comes home in front in the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday afternoon, he will be the most popular winner of the race for many years.
And yet, the great fans’ favourite is far from certain to set off as the favourite. Cue Card feels like an old friend after all these years, Friday’s race will be his sixth start at the festival and an overwhelming majority of the 70,000 racegoers crammed into the grandstands will celebrate wildly if he wins. It’s just that they do not necessarily think that he will.
It is all part of Cue Card’s appeal. His record here in March is hardly shabby, with two wins from five starts and a second place behind the great Sprinter Sacre five years ago. But Cue Card has never been a dominant force, a horse like Kauto Star –or Sprinter Sacre, for that matter – who is widely expected to succeed.
Gordon Brown was the prime minister when Cue Card began his festival career in 2010, winning a race for newcomers at odds of 40-1, and like all the most popular jumping horses he has been coming back ever since. Cheltenham’s most recent memory of him, however, is one of bitter failure in the most important race of his life. Twelve months ago, with not just the glory but also a million-pound bonus on the line, Cue Card fell three out when upsides the eventual winner.
It was too far out to be sure that he would have won, and Don Cossack, who did, was probably the best horse in the race. But Paddy Brennan, Cue Card’s jockey, made it clear this week that he blames himself for the fall and is desperate for the chance to atone.
For casual racing fans, on the outside of the racing bubble looking in, this strand to Cue Card’s story has all the elements – triumph, disaster and a glimpse of redemption – to make him an obvious choice. But he is hugely popular inside the bubble too, where he is a reminder, in truth almost a relic, of the days when so many of the sport’s champions were horses just like Cue Card: bred and bought for (relative) buttons, then owned and raced by old-time enthusiasts.
Djakadam, who will be one of Cue Card’s sternest opponents on Friday, represents National Hunt’s new wave. Rich Ricci, the former banker who owns him, has enjoyed huge success in recent seasons, paying immense sums for proven jumping stock in the French provinces.
But there is never likely to be a leading role for a former banker in the story of a “people’s horse”. Cue Card, on the other hand, was bought for less than £50,000 as an unproven “store” horse, thanks mainly to the shrewd judgment of Colin Tizzard, the West Country dairy farmer who trains him. Tizzard still has several hundred cows on the family land on the border between Somerset and Dorset, but still trains mainly for small-scale owners who have used the yard for years. That only adds to the Cue Card legend.
Tizzard also trains Native River, another leading contender for Friday’s race, but he is well aware that Cue Card is the people’s choice. “We had it in our minds last year that perhaps that was his chance gone,” he says. “He’d been around for a long time and he might not be as good this year. But he’s come out as good as he ever was. I don’t think he’s wilting at all yet.
“When Joe [Tizzard’s son] rode him here in the Champion Bumper, I’ve never had anything in the back of the neck like when he went to the front and bolted up. I’ve never experienced that type of emotion before or since, and he’s kept on doing it for seven seasons.”
Tizzard is aware, too, that Brennan holds himself responsible for Cue Card’s failure last year. “The Cheltenham Gold Cup is a very big strain on an owner, a trainer, a horse and a jockey,” Tizzard says. “I’m sure if Paddy had his time again, he wouldn’t have been where he was at that time.
“But if you look back in the race, four fences before, Cue Card was off the bridle and not going anywhere. Then a gap opened and the horse took off. None of us would ever think that Cue Card would fall because he’s always been a very neat jumper and at the time I was just glad that he got up, because it was a horrible fall.
“Paddy took it that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and there’s nothing wrong with saying that, is there? I don’t want to wind Paddy up, he’s wound up enough, but if this race doesn’t wind you up, nothing’s going to. If he goes there like he can, there’s no one better, but it will be a test for Paddy.”
It is, almost certainly, now or never for Cue Card. He is 11 years of age, and it is almost 50 years since a 12-year-old took the Gold Cup. And in Native River and Djakadam, he faces two strong opponents with youth on their side. A price of around 4-1 implies a winning chance no better than about 20%.
But Cue Card, as ever, will do his best, and if his best is not good enough, so be it. It has always been his way, and it is why tens of thousands of fans at Cheltenham will have a sentimental investment in Cue Card, even if their hard cash is riding on one of his rivals.
And as we should all know by now, victory always seems sweeter when you arrive in hope, not expectation.