Festival Watch: Colin Tizzard’s smile turns to grin with his Oscar winner

Colin Tizzard hasn't stopped smiling since Thistlecrack's Boxing Day victory in the King George

By James Toney

Colin Tizzard has waited a long time to be an overnight success – now he’s planning to savour every moment.

The in-form Dorset trainer but has been in the racing game long enough to know that winning streaks eventually stutter – though nothing suggests this current rich vein of form can’t last until the Cheltenham Festival, now just under 100 days away.

He’s still not stopped smiling after the manner Thistlecrack secured favourite’s status for the Gold Cup, with a Boxing Day victory in the the King George that was as imperious as it was impressive.

But that smile became a grin after novice hurdler Finian’s Oscar overturned rival emerging star, Paul Nicholl’s Capitaine, to win Sandown’s 32Red Tolworth Hurdle, Tizzard’s fourth Grade One win of the season.

Tizzard’s charge is now a 6-1 shot for Cheltenham’s Neptune Novices’ Hurdle but could also be directed towards the Supreme Novices’, the Festival’s traditional Tuesday opener.

In recent years, top-class novice hurdlers have been the domain of Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson and Champion Trainer Nicholls but there’s a new kid in town, albeit one that turned 61 this weekend.

Insiders at Tizzard’s Milborne Port yard have had high hopes for Finian’s Oscar ever since he arrived late last year, a seemingly bargain £250,000 auction buy for owner Alan Potts.

Jockey Tom O’Brien admits he remains an unfinished article but the nature of his wins at Hereford and Sandown are certainly eye-catching and demonstrate a trajectory of improvement it is hard to ignore.

It seems probable that Finian’s Oscar will follow the route of Mullins’s Yorkhill, who won last year’s Tolworth and then followed up with a Neptune victory, under the charge of Ruby Walsh, at Prestbury Park.

But perhaps the shorter Supreme could be a more exciting option, which is why 3-1 ‘to win any race at the Cheltenham Festival’ appeals, with the three-mile Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle another, albeit less likely, consideration.

This year’s Supreme field is wide open, current favourite Moon Racer could well be pointed at the Champion Hurdle and Defi Du Seuil is more likely to run in the Triumph Hurdle, while Mullins has interesting, if not stand-out, options.

It’s certainly a very different race to 12 months ago when Henderson’s Altior and Mullins’s Min – who go head-to-head again in this year’s highly-anticipated Arkle Chase – dominated the pre-race talk and duly came home first and second.

Question marks about ability on a sounder surface – both wins coming on soft ground – will remain but Finian’s Oscar isn’t short of speed, even if O’Brien refers to him as an ‘out and out chaser’.

Two from home in the Tolworth he was alongside his rivals, within a blink he’d opened up a five length advantage, albeit aided by a poor jump from his chief opposition.

“You’ve got to enjoy times like these as they don’t come along often,” said Tizzard, who refused to be drawn on his charge’s most likely engagement at Cheltenham.

“These are nice problems to have and you’ve got to enjoy it haven’t you? We know now he handles this type of ground and he looked in control for most of the way.

“His hurdling was immaculate and he is a really professional horse. He has had only two races but he’s a gorgeous young horse with some potential.”

Gigginstown’s Death Duty extended his winning run over hurdles to four with a grade one victory at Naas on Sunday and is another with Neptune claims.

This was his sternest test yet and there was little to chose between Gordon Elliott’s exciting novice and the Mullins-trained Augusta Kate, when the latter – who counts Alan Shearer, golfer Lee Westwood and TV presenters Ant and Dec among his owners – fell at the last just when moving into contention. She is now a live chance for the Mares’ Novices Hurdle on the Festival’s last day.

Elsewhere, Lifeboat Mona’s victory – Nicholl’s first of 2017 – at Sandown saw her odds trimmed for the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Defending champion Vroum Vroum Mag and Elliott’s Apples Jade are rightly favourites with much more class and that’s before you possibly throw Annie Power – unraced this season but entered into the Irish Champion Hurdle on January 29th – into the equation.

But at a best-priced 20-1, despite six wins from nine starts, Lifeboat Mona is a horse that certainly isn’t short of fight, should the market and contenders move around in the weeks ahead.

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