Big-race jockey Tom Scudamore is relishing the chance to “take on the big boys” with Thistlecrack in the 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.
Peerless over hurdles, Thistlecrack is three from three as a novice since switching to fences, while his Colin Tizzard-trained stablemate and last year’s winner Cue Card arrives seemingly still at the peak of his powers after victory in the Betfair Chase.
Much talk had taken place over whether Thistlecrack would go for the traditional Christmas highlight or stick to the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase on the same card.
Adding extra spice is the presence of Josses Hill, who is trying three miles for the first time, plus dual winner Silviniaco Conti and Tea For Two.
Scudamore, who has ridden Thistlecrack in his last 10 races, winning four Grade Ones, said: “I found out last Sunday morning that Thistlecrack was definitely running in the King George rather than the novice chase.
“I was absolutely delighted to hear the news as it is not every year that you get to ride the favourite or second-favourite for a race of this prestige.
“The owners had asked me a few questions a week ago about how I thought the horse had progressed and would cope with everything. They’ve come to the decision that it is now time to take on the big boys.
“We’ve had three runs over fences now and everything has gone right for him. You have to take your opportunities while they are there and that was the unanimous decision from the team.”
Looking at the opposition, he sad in his Coral blog: “I’m trying not to get too sucked into the Thistlecrack vs Cue Card theme because there are other good horses in the race.
“You only have to look back a few years ago when it was billed as Kauto Star vs Denman in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and then Imperial Commander won the race. You have to respect all the challengers in the race.”
He added: “I’m a massive Cue Card fan. I’ve ridden against him on a number of occasions and he is a fantastic racehorse but so are Silviniaco Conti, Tea For Two and Josses Hill, who was particularly impressive around Huntingdon last time out.
“You certainly cannot take your eye off the ball.
“I know the strengths of my horse. I’ve done lots of homework so I am very relaxed going into the race. I’ve got an idea of the different scenarios of how the race may pan out. When you feel prepared and ready, it makes you feel confident.
“The fact that there is only a small field means there is nothing to get in the way. All the horses are there by merit and they all have every chance of winning.”
On the decision to run his two stable stars against each other, Tizzard told BBC Sport: “In an ideal world you probably wouldn’t, but these are championship races. You’re not doing it every week.
“I won’t feel sorry for Cue Card if Thistlecrack beats him, or the other way round.
“Cue Card’s been a fantastic horse for six or seven seasons, and Thistlecrack’s been a damn good horse for us. I don’t really have favourites – I like them all.”
He added: “We changed Cue Card’s work partner and we got our fastest young horse out, who’s been beating everything, and Cue Card beat him by three lengths.
“He’s beautiful and looks bigger and stronger – it doesn’t mean he’s going to win the King George, but he’s in good form and will have come on from Haydock.
“Thistlecrack at home hasn’t got the beauty galloping that Cue Card has got. He looks fine and it’s not until you get to the races that he sort of comes up three inches and looks an absolute machine.
“There’s no doubt about it, he’s brilliant, he can gallop with anything, his jumping is pretty steady now, and he could easily go and win the King George, who knows?”
Cue Card’s jockey Paddy Brennan is oozing confidence, but like Scudamore is aware of the dangers lurking in a race that has captured the imagination of the racing world.
He said in his 32Red blog: “You can’t fail to have been impressed by Thistlecrack in his three chase starts.
“Yes, they may have been in novice chases and in races he was expected to win, but I thought he was faultless at Newbury last time. And he was such a good – and at times frightening and effortlessly good – staying hurdler last season that you have to give him the utmost respect.
“One thing is for sure, and that is his presence in the race has totally changed the nature of the contest. It would have been great for Coneygree’s connections to see him in here, but Thistlecrack elevates the race even further because he brings a dangerous, and unknown, element to the race.
“But this is a totally different kettle of fish to what Thistlecrack has ever faced before. Cue Card is easily the best horse he will have lined up against in his career – and by some distance, too.”
He went on: “But you have to respect all the opposition – Josses Hill is improving if unproven at the trip, Tea For Two won the novice chase on this card last season, and Silviniaco Conti is a dual winner of the race – and the pace angle of the race is interesting, too.
“Josses Hill’s jumping looks to have got better with experience and by going from the front, but I don’t think Silviniaco Conti will be hanging around either, and Thistlecrack is a stayer so I would have thought that he would be ridden forward, too.”