By Andy Stephens
Leg one of The Cue Card Farewell Tour could barely have been more rousing.
The old boy could not quite repel the much younger legs of Waiting Patiently in the Betfair Ascot Chase but if anybody needed any proof that he retains most of his ability and enthusiasm, if not all of it, then this was ample proof.
Waiting Patiently came into this world during the summer of 2011 and, having been gently nurtured ever since that day, was having only the ninth race of his career.
It says everything about Cue Card’s sustained brilliance and longevity that he had already run in two Grade One contests by the time Waiting Patiently was foaled - winning the Champion Bumper and then returning 12 months later to finish fourth in a red-hot renewal of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, when a certain Sprinter Sacre finished about a length ahead of him.
The admirable King’s Theatre gelding has been winning or holding his own at the highest level for eight years now and, aged 12, is into his ninth season.Cue Card, left, and Waiting Patiently served up a treat at Ascot (PA)
Just about all the horses he met in his early skirmishes at Cheltenham have long since declined or departed the scene, yet still this nine-time Grade One winner sits at the top table.
In terms of his longevity at the highest level, perhaps only Desert Orchid and Kauto Star can match him in the modern era.
Remarkably, 35 of Cue Card’s 40 races have been at either Grade One or Grade Two level, and the £32,457 he pocketed for his connections on Saturday nudged his prize-money earnings close to £1.5 million.
Colin Tizzard announced in mid-December that Cue Card would have three more runs before being retired.
With Ascot out of the way, there will be two more spins before the finishing line is reached for a final time.
But where does Cue Card run at Cheltenham? Jean Bishop, his octogenarian owner, and Team Tizzard face a delicate choice.
Will it be a third attempt at the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, in which he has fallen three out for the past two years, or will it be the Ryanair, a race he won he won five years ago? He is a general 33-1 for the former, and is trading anywhere between 8-1 and 25-1 for the latter.
Both take place on the New Course and, whichever is chosen, the obstacle that has proved his undoing for the past two years will again stand in his way.
Was it just coincidence? Probably.
Two years ago he was racing exuberantly and had just nosed ahead when departing; 12 months later his stable was out of sorts and he seemed to be out of his comfort zone.
It would be absurd to suggest the dual Festival winner (also second to Sprinter Sacre in an Arkle) does not operate at Cheltenham and his jumping on Saturday was perhaps as quick and accurate as it has ever been.
Interestingly, the veteran ran without the various bits of equipment that he is usually equipped with - including his usual fluffy noseband and grackle bit - and it certainly did him no harm.
Reunited with Paddy Brennan, he went hard from the front but was hassled by Frodon and Speredek before kicking on six from home.
Instead of wilting when Waiting Patiently pounced, Cue Card stuck admirably to his task and he had two rock solid yardsticks - Frodon and Top Notch - well adrift.
The winning time was 10 seconds quicker than when Cue Card won the Ascot Chase for a first time in 2013, albeit the ground on that occasion was probably more testing.
If he contests the Ryanair then the winner may again be waiting for him, although Ruth Jefferson again seemed cool on the idea on Sunday. Another popular warrior, Un De Sceaux, will likely be back to defend his crown.
The Gold Cup lacks an outstanding candidate, but a big field looks on the cards and it is over more than five furlongs further. It would be the tougher, more punishing contest.
“He’s got unfinished business in Gold Cup and he’s won a Ryanair,” Tizzard said at Ascot on Saturday. “It will be Jean’s (Bishop, the owner) decision - we’ll do what’s best for the horse.”
Bishop indicated on Sunday that she is keen to go for chasing's blue riband: “It would be amazing if he could finish his career by winning the Gold Cup," she told the Racing Post. "I think he deserves another chance in the race as there is unfinished business considering he has fallen at the third-last fence in his two tries in the race so far."
If Cue Card were to win the Gold Cup, then it is long odds-on that he will be retired on the spot. It would be the perfect end to what has been an incredible journey.
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