Colin Tizzard: Cue Card, Thistlecrack & Native River trainer targets repeat success
After the big successes comes the pressure for repeats.
During the 2015-16 jump-racing season, no British trainer hit the big-race headlines more frequently than Colin Tizzard as he navigated generally triumphant paths for people's-favourite steeplechaser Cue Card, champion long-distance hurdler Thistlecrack and emerging star Native River.
Despite suffering the 'fall of the year', at the third last fence in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Cue Card confirmed his place in the hearts of thousands with wins at Wetherby, at Haydock in the Betfair Chase, in the King George VI Chase at Kempton and at Aintree.
The death of Bob Bishop, the 10-year-old's joint-owner with wife Jean, just days after Kempton added to the emotion.
Meanwhile, the brilliant Thistlecrack, aged eight, was sweeping aside all rivals, most spectacularly in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham; and the six-year-old Native River made a name for himself with a Grade One race victory at Aintree after a near-miss at the Festival.
The "three beautiful stayers", as Tizzard describes them, ensured that the cricket-loving trainer accrued a half-century of winners, banking in the process nearly £1.5m in prize money and propelling him to fourth in the Trainers' Championship.
And, though it would not have counted towards the title, had Cue Card won at Cheltenham there would have been another £1m for completing the Jockey Club's 'Steeplechasing Triple Crown' - the Betfair Chase, King George and Gold Cup.
The late-October cranking up of the jumps season sees the return of the 'big three', and, inevitably, the weight of expectation is high that Tizzard, assisted at their Venn Farm HQ on the Dorset-Somerset border by ex-jockey son Joe, can deliver again.
The trainer is aware of people's hopes, but seems to be revelling in it.
He said: "You can run an ordinary or 'nice' horse, and if he's not quite fit enough first time, it doesn't make any difference - you'll bring him on for the race. You can't do that with these boys because you scribes will be talking about it for the next month.
"So there's pressure to do that - and obviously I feel it - but it's lovely to have, isn't it?"
A return to Wetherby, aiming for a repeat in the Charlie Hall Chase, is the first plan for Cue Card, before another Triple Crown attempt.
He will be joined in the horsebox north by Native River, who's due to contest the West Yorkshire Hurdle as a warm-up for a probable challenge on Newbury's Hennessy Gold Cup in November.
Before that, however, Thistlecrack could travel to Chepstow for his first chase. It is hoped that will act as a springboard for a plan - as mouth-watering as it is, on the face of it, ambitious - to take on Cue Card and co in the Gold Cup in March.
Such an encounter of two hugely popular horses from the same stables has echoes of the momentous clashes between Kauto Star and Denman - both trained by Paul Nicholls - in four Gold Cups between 2008 and 2011.
Assessing his heavyweights, Tizzard told BBC Sport: "Thistlecrack is fitter than when he ran first time last year. He's been in since July 20, but has taken a lot of work to get him where we are now. He's a big, heavy horse. He's working well and jumps well.
"Everything about Cue Card is brilliant - I think he's still at his peak.
"Now he's a bit older, we didn't let him get big and fat [while out at grass] - a Premier League footballer wouldn't go and put on loads of weight and come back and play football - and we rode him after six weeks out in a field to keep an element of fitness.
"Native River is great; we'll have to consider the World Hurdle at the Festival with him because if Cue Card and Thistlecrack get clear runs and go to the Gold Cup is Native River going to beat them? His rating puts him in the World Hurdle."
With his star names plus a growing string - bolstered by the arrival of 15 horses owned by multi-millionaire businessman Alan Potts and his wife, Ann - Tizzard is in an enviably strong position for the 'core' jumps campaign ahead.
He says he does not have enough "firepower" to challenge for the Trainers' Championship, which is decided by prize money, but insists what really matters is one race, not a title.
"The Gold Cup means everything - what do we do in life, it's to try to win a Gold Cup," he said.
"Thistlecrack's owners [John and Heather Snook] bought horses this year and want to run them in bumpers, hurdles and chases to see if they can make them Cheltenham standard and try and win a Gold Cup, that's it."
The road to Gold starts here.