As a dairy farmer turned racehorse trainer, you could forgive Colin Tizzard for milking the biggest moment of his career. But that’s just not his style
Native River, ridden by champion jockey Richard Johnson, had given him a first Cheltenham Gold Cup after leading all the way from the front and fending off Might Bite in an absorbing duel.
“I came here aged 17, watched from a Red Cross hut by the final fence and never thought I’d have a runner. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is everything – the fact we’ve won it is unreal,” said Tizzard.
The 62-year had been close to tears and bore a slightly bemused air as reporters fired questions following a memorable sporting battle.
Asked how he would celebrate, the 62-year-old said: “I might have a half.” The little glint in his eye told you he might have a few.
This was jump racing at its courageous, spectacular best – two top steeplechasers putting in mighty leaps in a tussle over 22 fences on rain-softened ground.
And it was something of a throwback to simpler times for the stable behind the success.
Tizzard and his son Joe, assistant trainer and former jockey, left their farm on the Devon/Somerset border for Cheltenham at 6am after checking their 350 cows had been milked.
“Christophe, the guy who milks them, wished us well as we headed off. It’ll be my turn on Sunday as it’s his day off,” Joe told me.
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River turns the tide for Tizzard
Tizzard has progressed from a farmer who trains to a trainer who farms.
He has around 35 staff in total and cites delegation as a key element in his operation.
Going into Friday, he had drawn a blank at the meeting and seen his popular chaser Cue Card disappoint in the Ryanair Chase on Thursday.
Cue Card, twice a faller when fancied in the Gold Cup, may now be heading for retirement.
However, the team – which has more than 100 racehorses – saw its fortunes change on the Festival’s fourth and final day.
Kilbricken Storm, ridden by Harry Cobden, caused a 33-1 surprise when winning the Novices’ Hurdle.
And a 203-1 double was completed with victory for Native River, who was third in the Gold Cup last year after winning the Welsh Grand National.
The Tizzards nursed him back from a ligament problem and he is unlikely to run again this season before being aimed at a repeat Cheltenham performance in 2019.
Winning owner Garth Broom said: “I thought I was dreaming. We achieved a lifetime ambition, which doesn’t always happen.
“I’m slightly in shock. Native River and Richard Johnson are made for each other.”
Second time even better for Johnson
It was a second Gold Cup for Johnson, 18 years after his first on Looks Like Trouble, and victory tasted even sweeter this time round.
“I think you appreciate it more as you get older,” said Johnson, 40.
“When you’re young, these things seem so easy and you don’t realise how hard it is to get one of these.”
For much of his career, Johnson competed somewhat in the shadow of 20-time champion jockey AP McCoy, finishing runner-up on 16 occasions in the jockeys’ title race,
He bore his friend and rival no ill will, and was in tears when McCoy retired three years ago.
Johnson, who won his first title in 2016 and is on the way to a third, said: “I want to make sure I enjoy it, He’s a very special horse and it’s a fantastic day.”
There was a sting in the tale for the jockey – he was later suspended for seven days and fined £6,550 for using his whip above the permitted level in the closing stages as he strived for victory.
But there was a sad end to the Festival, with three runners – Dresden, Some Plan and North Hill Harvey – put down after the concluding Grand Annual Chase.
It took the total of equine fatalities to six for the meeting with the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) announcing it will carry out a review.
Bowled over – From Botham to Gold Cup
Colin Tizzard has talked of his “claim to fame” when he took the wicket of future England cricket legend Sir Ian Botham as a teenager.
“I played for Somerset schoolboys at football and East Somerset with Ian Botham at cricket,” he said.
“When I was 15 I got Botham caught at long-on when he was trying to hit me for six.”
Tizzard, Johnson and Native River hit their rivals for six in the Gold Cup, but the trainer still had his feet on the ground.
“Ian has been a superstar, but I just train a few horses,” he said.
Modest from the first to the last.
Henderson settles for second
Might Bite’s defeat scuppered trainer Nicky Henderson’s bid for an historic treble.
No trainer had ever won the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup at the same Festival.
“Second’s a funny place to be on these occasions but you can only be proud of the horse,” said the Berkshire trainer, who won the Champion Hurdle with Buveur D’Air before Altior triumphed in the Champion Chase..
“It was a two-horse race from the word go. In the end, the ground beat him.”
Anibale Fly finished third, ahead of Road To Respect and Djakadam.