Colin Tizzard, who believes stable stalwart Cue Card is back to his best form, said on Wednesday at a stable visit organised by Cheltenham Racecourse that no decision had been made about which race the evergreen 12-year-old will go for at The Festival next month.
Owner Jean Bishop is arriving on Sunday for a three-day visit to Tizzard's Spurles Farm Stables on the Dorset/Somerset border and the subject will be raised again then, but a final decision may not be made until closer to the best four days of Jump racing.
Cue Card has fallen at the third last in the two most recent runnings of the G1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, the first time when a £1-million bonus was possible, while he won the shorter G1 Ryanair Chase back in 2013.
Paddy Brennan, in the saddle for five of Cue Card's nine G1 victories and also his two Gold Cup falls, was reunited with Cue Card in the G1 Betfair Ascot Chase over two miles and five furlongs last weekend and they finished second to Waiting Patiently, the pair clear of five others.
Tizzard, who believes he has a strong team for The Festival, said: "I think we have some good chances in the novices' races, while Cue Card will run a big race in whatever he goes in. I think we have better chances for The Festival this year than last year.
"We seem to be in better form this season - we redid the gallop over Christmas. It had got wet and dirty, with no spring left in it. So we took all the woodchip off and redid it. The horses are working better since then. Some of my staff definitely think it has made a difference.
"Robbie Power is the first jockey for the Potts horses or we can use Bryan (Cooper) or if he is busy in Ireland, we can use whoever we like.
"Paddy will ride Cue Card again at Cheltenham next month. I was quite keen for Paddy on Saturday to be always going forward and that is a license for Paddy to kick on. He just wanted to make Cue Card's mind up over the first two and then he sat still - a couple of times horses went by him. Cue Card does not have to make the running.
"I don't know why Cue Card has had problems with the third last in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup - the third last is still there in the Ryanair. Do horses remember? Jockeys riding them might. I am sure I will remember. Cue Card has been a good jumper all his life - the first time he tanked into it when it looked like if he had popped over he would have been away.
"The second time he clipped the top and over he came. Coincidence. I have been through the falls in my mind and I don't think there is anything to say why that happened or why it should happen again at the fence. I always watch our horses and wouldn't look away.
"We had Paddy in last Thursday morning and he went over the schooling fences fast on Cue Card. That is when we took the fluffy noseband off, running in an ordinary snaffle, as we wanted Cue Card to pull again and that is what he did and he was brilliant over those schooling fences. Was that because he was in good form and had been slightly out of form before or because of the changes we made?
"If he maintains the form he is in now, Cue Card can go for either of those races at The Festival and we won't feel we are doing anything we shouldn't.
"Jean (Bishop - owner) is coming down on Sunday and we may not make up our minds finally until declaration time - we want to keep the door open in case the favourites come out of one of the races.
"We had nine Grade One successes last season which was unreal, but we are going better this season as a racing yard with our lovely young horses. We are winning with a lot of different horses and most of the Grade One races are yet to come. We have some good powerful ammunition left.
"I am not disappointed in this season at all. We have had 59 winners, more than we have ever had, though we have more horses, and gone through the £1 million in prize money barrier.
"It is difficult to win two or three Grade Ones, let alone nine, which was never going to be maintained. We are still trying.
"Do we run our horses at Exeter, where they have a winning chance, or do we wait and have a go at the championship races, which we have always done. My wife, Pauline, and daughter Kim say I aim too high, though Joe doesn't."
Fox Norton (FR)
Colin Tizzard declared: "Fox Norton is a good horse. He missed the Game Spirit (Betfair Exchange Chase) at Newbury earlier this month as he had puss in his foot. After he ran in the Tingle Creek, he was lame in his back, the same issue he had after the Game Spirit last year so he had to have cortisone injections. He has a slight kissing spine. He's got issues in his back and he had it after the King George where he didn't jump at all, but he's absolutely fine now.
"He'll be fine and I expect we'll go for the Ryanair, unless Altior scares everyone off in the Champion Chase and then we might take him on but Altior does look the business, but you must not run away from one horse.
"He nearly won the Champion Chase last year when we were supposedly out of form. All of the jockeys last year were looking for Douvan, but forget about the horse in front who they thought would stop [Special Tiara]. Well he didn't and we gave him eight lengths going to the last and made up six lengths. Fox Norton is probably as good over two miles in a championship race as he is over two and a half-miles. The race to run in is where we think the easiest opposition is."
Age: 8 (born March 27, 2010)
Breeding: b g Lando - Natt Musik (Kendor)
Owner: Ann & Alan Potts Limited
Official BHA Rating: 168
*Previously trained by Nick Williams and Neil Mulholland, Fox Norton joined Colin Tizzard in November, 2016, after being bought by the late Alan Potts.
*An 11-time winner under Rules, eight of those successes have come over fences, the latest in the G2 Shloer Chase at Cheltenham on November 19.
*A head second to Special Tiara in the 2017 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, Fox Norton went on to record back-to-back G1 successes at the Aintree and Punchestown Festivals respectively last season in the JLT Melling Chase and Boylesports Champion Chase.
*The eight-year-old finished a half-length second to Politologue in the G1 Betfair Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown in December and was pulled up on his latest in the G1 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day when trying three miles for the first time.
*He is entered in the G1 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase over two miles and the G1 Ryanair Chase over an extended two and a half miles at The Festival next month.
Starts: 25; Wins: 11; 2nd: 5; 3rd: 5 Win & Place prize Money: £593,521
Cue Card (GB)
Colin Tizzard said: "Despite everything that has been said over the last three months, he looks to me as good as he has ever been. I watch a recording (of the Betfair Ascot Chase) and he was only half a length down when he definitely got interfered with. I am not taking anything away from Waiting Patiently as he won on merit on the day.
"I think Cue Card will improve massively for the Ascot race and whether he goes for the Ryanair Chase or the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup is not decided yet. If you read Monday's paper you would think he was going for the Cheltenham Gold Cup but I have spoken to Jean (Bishop - owner) and that is not what she wanted to say. We don't need to decide yet.
"Cue Card is in his ninth season and it is amazing that he has maintained his form like he has. You have got to say he ran to some of his best form on Saturday - he beat the others like Frodon and Top Notch out of sight. We have felt over the last three years that he is better over three miles. There is no reason why we shouldn't go for the biggest race - is that any harder to win than the Ryanair? Possibly, yes."
Age: 12 (born April 30, 2006)
Breeding: b g King's Theatre - Wicked Crack (King's Ride)
Owner: Jean Bishop
Official BHA Rating: 166
*The remarkable and popular 12-year-old has been Colin Tizzard's stable star since bursting onto the scene as a four-year-old when he followed up a six-length bumper success at Fontwell in January, 2010 with an eight-length victory in the G1 Weatherbys Champion Bumper at The Festival in March of the same year.
*A talented hurdler, Cue Card finished fourth to Al Ferof in the 2011 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle at The Festival.
*Cue Card has gone on to excel over fences, landing eight G1 events, the first of which came courtesy of a six-length success in the 2013 Betfair Ascot Chase, before Tizzard's charge followed up with a nine-length victory in the Ryanair Chase at that year's Festival.
*Further G1 success has followed, with three Betfair Chase victories at Haydock (2013, 2015 and 2016) supplemented by a 2015 32Red King George VI Chase, a 2016 Betfred Bowl Chase victory at Aintree and a second Betfair Ascot Chase in 2017.
*Cue Card has contested the G1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup twice and fell at the third last in both the 2016 and 2017 renewals of Jump racing's Blue Riband event.
*This season, Cue Card fell at the 15th fence in the G2 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in December, before chasing home the winner of that event, Bristol De Mai, in the G1 Betfair Chase at Haydock.
*Jean Bishop's gelding bounced back to form with a gutsy two and three-quarter length second to Waiting Patiently in the G1 Betfair Ascot Chase earlier this month.
*He is entered in the G1 Ryanair Chase over an extended two and a half miles and the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup over an extended three miles and two furlongs at The Festival 2018.
Starts: 40; Wins: 16; 2nd: 11; 3rd: 2 Win & Place Prize Money: £1,447,454
Native River (IRE)
Colin Tizzard said: "We wondered last season if by going for the Hennessy, then going on to the Welsh National and then the Denman Chase that maybe we had taken the edge off him so he wasn't approaching the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the best of form. He ran well to finish thirtd.
"He's a lot stronger this time around, he's in great form and we had him ready from Christmas. The manner of how he won at Newbury was equally as good as he's ever been. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the hardest race of the season, they go flat out. The big strong stayers usually win and horses like a Sizing John who can travel and have pace at the end also win, but usually the best horse wins the Gold Cup.
"We had Native River ready for Newbury - he had been to Larkhill three times as we didn't want him to get tired, or injured and we wanted him to do himself justice so he was ready for that.
"He is bound to improve for that run, every horse does, and we'll see if he has a nice clean run to Cheltenham and how much he has to improve to win the race, but he is absolutely lovely at home."
Age: 8 (born May 4, 2010)
Breeding: ch g Indian River -Native Mo (Be My Native)
Owner: Brocade Racing
BHA Rating: 166
*Native River won three times over hurdles, including a two and three-quarter length victory over Definitly Red in a novices' hurdle at Newcastle in November 2014. Ninth in the 2015 G1 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, Native River's size and scope meant he would always improve for the transition to fences.
*In his novice season, Native River finished third to Tea For Two in the G1 Kauto Star Novices' Chase and second to Minella Rocco in the National Hunt Chase at The Festival in 2016 before landing the G1 Mildmay Novices' Chase at Aintree.
*Native River enjoyed a stellar campaign last season, in which he defied a big weight in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in November and top-weight in the Welsh National at Chepstow in December before winning the G2 Denman Chase at Newbury in February. The eight-year-old son of Indian River went on to finish an excellent two and three-quarter length third in the G1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup behind Sizing John.
*Tizzard's charge returned to action earlier this month with an emphatic 12-length success in the G2 Denman Chase at Newbury, when winning the race for the second year in succession.
*He is entered in the G1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup over an extended three miles and two furlongs on the fourth and final day of The Festival 2018, Gold Cup Day, Friday, March 16.
Starts: 20; Wins: 10; 2nd: 2; 3rd: 5 Win & Place Prize Money: £474,600
Elegant Escape (IRE)
Colin Tizzard remarked: "Elegant Escape is a lovely young horse and we're leaning towards the RSA Chase with him, but if a top amateur came up, we might think about the National Hunt Chase."
Age: 6 (born April 1, 2012)
Breeding: b gDubai Destination - Graineuaile (Orchestra)
Owner: J P Romans
BHA Rating: 153
*Finished second to Ballymore Novices' Hurdle favourite Samcro in a point-to-point at Monksgrange in April 2016, Elegant Escape was successful on his first two starts for Colin Tizzard at Chepstow and Ascot in October and November, 2016, before finishing fourth in the G1 Betfred Challow Novices' Hurdle.
*Seventh in both last season's G1 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at The Festival and the G1 Doom Bar Sefton Novices' Hurdle at Aintree.
*The son of Dubai Destination has excelled during his novice chase campaign, winning two of his five starts. That included a three quarters of a length victory over Paul Nicholls' prolific winner Black Corton in a G2 event at Newbury in December, before he chased home the same rival in the G1 Kauto Star Novices' Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.
*Elegant Escape was an impressive 13-length winner over three miles on heavy ground at Exeter earlier this month.
*He is entered in both the G1 RSA Insurance Novices' Chase over an extended three miles and the four-mile National Hunt Chase at The Festival.
Starts: 11; Wins: 4; 2nd: 3; 3rd: 0 Win & Place Prize Money: £78,575
Finian's Oscar (IRE)
Colin Tizzard explained: "Finian's Oscar was pulled up in the Cleeve Hurdle and he was making a noise, so we've had his palate done.
"We schooled him this morning and I'd say he would wear blinkers and go for the JLT Novices' Chase. His jumping all season has been suspect, but that's what we're likely to do. When he ran, most of our horses weren't running well, but we've come through that."
Age: 6 (born April 10, 2012)
Breeding: b g Oscar - Trinity Alley (Taipan)
Owner: Ann & Alan Potts Limited
BHA Rating: 153 over fences, 151 over hurdles
*Bought for £250,000 at the Tattersalls Ireland Cheltenham November Sale after winning a point-to-point at Portrush in October, 2016.
*Unbeaten in his first four starts over hurdles in the 2016/17 campaign, which included G1 victories in the 32Red Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown Park and the Betway Mersey Novices' Hurdle at Aintree, Finian's Oscar was a short-head second to Bacardys in the G1 Tattersalls Ireland Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown.
*Successful on his first two starts this season over fences at Chepstow and Cheltenham in October and November respectively, the son of Oscar was a well-beaten third behind Sceau Royal in the G1 randoxhealth.com Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown on December 9 over two miles.
*On his latest start over fences, Tizzard's charge went down by a short-head by Gary Moore's Benatar in a G2 event over two miles and five furlongs at Ascot in December.
*Connections subsequently decided to revert to hurdles with Finian's Oscar stepping up to three miles to contest the G2 galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham on Festival Trials Day, January 27 when he was pulled up.
*Since that disappointing performance, Colin Tizzard has confirmed that Finian's Oscar will race over fences on his next outing.
* Finian's Oscar is entered in the G1 RSA Insurance Novices' Chase over an extended three miles, the G1 JLT Novices' Chase over two miles and four furlongs and the G1 Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle over three miles at The Festival
Starts: 10 Wins: 6; 2nd: 2; 3rd: 1 Win & Place Prize Money: £159,982
Colin Tizzard commented: "He was sore behind when he got beat at Sandown and had to have a month off.
"He's absolutely fine, he schooled this morning and is a lovely, big chasing type. He'll go for the Ballymore or the Albert Bartlett, but I think he is more of a three-miler."
Colin Tizzard reported: ""We'll go to the Supreme with him. He is a lovely horse who will make a lovely chaser next season. We haven't raced him much in the last two months as we are targeting Cheltenham, Aintree and perhaps Punchestown.
"We'd like to think we will have a go at running in at least two Festivals with him, maybe even three. We want to win the big races so we'll start at Cheltenham in the Supreme, then we'll go for Aintree and then see if he's still ready for Punchestown. He needs good spring ground."
Colin Tizzard's entries so far for The Festival 2018
CHAMPION DAY - TUESDAY, MARCH 13 (OLD COURSE)
1.30pm £125,000 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m ½f
Vision Des Flos, Lostintranslation, Ainchea, The Russian Doyen, Slate House
3.30pm £450,000 Stan James Champion Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m ½f
4.10pm £120,000 OLBG Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 4f
4.50pm £125,000 National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Rider's Novices' Chase (Novices) (Amateurs) (Grade 2) 4m
Elegant Escape, Sizing Tennessee
LADIES DAY - WEDNESDAY, MARCH 14 (OLD COURSE & CROSS COUNTRY)
1.30pm £125,000 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 5f
Kilbricken Storm, Shoal Bay, White Moon, Vision Des Flos, Lostintranslation, Ainchea, The Russian Doyen, Slate House
2.10pm £175,000 RSA Novices' Chase (Grade 1) 3m ½f
Elegant Escape, Finian's Oscar, Sizing Tennessee, West Approach
3.30pm £400,000 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1) 2m
ST PATRICK'S THURSDAY - THURSDAY, MARCH 15 (NEW COURSE)
1.30pm £150,000 JLT Novices' Chase (Grade 1) 2m 4f
Finian's Oscar, Sizing Tennessee, West Approach
2.50pm £350,000 Ryanair Chase (Grade 1) 2m 5f
Fox Norton, Cue Card
3.30pm £325,000 Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1) 3m
GOLD CUP DAY - FRIDAY, MARCH 16 (NEW COURSE)
2.50pm £125,000 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) 3m
Kilbricken Storm, White Moon
3.30pm £625,000 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase (Grade 1) 3m 2½f
Cue Card, Native River