There was a time when Colin Tizzard was a cattle farmer with a few racehorses as a sideline, and whose greatest sporting achievement had come on the cricket field.
How things have changed, and are maybe about to change further.
While Tizzard, 60, is still able to bask in the memory of claiming the wicket of legendary cricketer Sir Ian Botham when they played together as Somerset schoolboys, he’s now planning to bowl over the opposition at the Cheltenham Festival with two of Britain’s biggest hopes against the raiding Irish masses.
The ever-popular Cue Card, already a two-time Festival winner, lines up as likely home favourite in the Gold Cup, while Thistlecrack is seen by some as the banker of the week as he looks to make it four successes on the trot this season, in the World Hurdle.
And, if Cue Card can add to his recent rejuvenation victories in Haydock’s Betfair Chase in November and in jump racing’s Christmas feature, the King George VI Chase at Kempton, he’ll be completing the Jockey Club’s new steeplechasing Triple Crown, and collecting a £1m cheque for his troubles.
These are high-pressure days for Tizzard, his wife Pauline, ex-jockey son Joe, daughter Kim and their 65-horse operation based at the family farm on the Dorset/Somerset border.
However, a broad smile spreads across his face as soon as the subject of Botham comes up in conversation.
“We played for Yeovil area, and Ian was captain and I was vice-captain,” he recalls in his distinctive West Country burr. “In the trials for Somerset I bowled him out. He was already a Somerset schoolboy player but he came in at the end of the day.
“He thought he was going to hit me all round the ground, which he did the first three balls – all were fours – and then he missed one and I had him out. He was trying to hit me for six, he wasn’t sort of blocking a good ball, but in my little moments I think that’s one of my life’s highlights.”
Since then, Cue Card has provided the Tizzards with all kinds of quite different highlights, when taking the Champion Bumper in 2010 and then, three years later, the Ryanair Chase, followed not long after by a first Betfair Chase trophy.
But a generally barren period ensued before the 10-year-old, owned by the string’s long-time supporters Jean and Bob Bishop, returned triumphantly to the top with his recent purple patch. Poignantly, Bob Bishop died only a few days after the King George, aged 83.
Various theories have been put forward to account for Cue Card’s improvement in form, including a throat operation on a debilitating trapped epiglottis which badly affected his ability to breathe, though his trainer believes other factors may also be at play, not least new stabling.
“We’re in a fresh build now,” said Tizzard, who used to train the horses cheek by jowl with his 700 cattle.
“There are no old, historic buildings and bugs, and I think he’s healthier. There’s good ventilation, high roofs and sunlight.
“He ran twice after the epiglottis operation and didn’t do anything much, but is like a five or six-year-old now, he looks beautiful, and we’ve got a few older horses running better.
“We did the building because before we weren’t going anywhere, were we? We were having 35 winners a year, and winning £500,000, and I was chuffed with that.
“But with Joe coming home [retiring as a jockey] I just thought we ought to make a statement and move forward.
“We needed the farm back anyway, as the horses had been taking a lot of the buildings and the cattle were pushed out everywhere, and now we have them in one place and the horses in another.
“It’s my dream. I’ve got a proper training establishment now; I’m not just a farmer playing about.”
A proper training establishment that, with the particular assistance of Cue Card, now regular mount of jockey Paddy Brennan, and the Tom Scudamore-ridden Thistlecrack, has already surpassed previous prize-money levels, and is on course to beat its winners’ tally (46) too.
Tasting further Festival glory with the strikingly-progressive Thistlecrack – who’s seen as a Gold Cup contender of the future – in the World Hurdle would be one thing, but the trainer admits lifting the centrepiece Gold Cup, plus the seven-figure bonus, would be something else.
Tizzard, who reports both star runners are “right on their game”, added: “I think if I could win a Gold Cup that would be me done for life.
“It’s the biggest steeplechase in the world; the Grand National is a big, wide race, but in England and Ireland and Scotland and Wales, it’s the race everyone sets out to do.
“The money would be nice – it would be nice for the staff – and my share would get lost on 10 acres of land somewhere I expect, but it would be fantastic.
“I get nervous just talking to you about them, there’s masses of pressure so I am like a bear with a sore head half the time. Both have marvellous chances and I can’t quite believe it’s us that has them both.”