Tizzard sounding confident ahead of Thistlecrack's return to action
Colin Tizzard's heart will pound just that little bit faster as star-charge Thistlecrack makes his long-awaited return to action today.
After 307 days, Tizzard lines him up in the Long Distance Hurdle, the showpiece feature in the opening day of Newbury's Ladbrokes Winter Carnival.
And what happens could set in motion a sequence of events - ending up in the winners' enclosure at Cheltenham in March - that Tizzard admits remains his life ambition.
"He was brilliant last year, brilliant the year before over hurdles and there's absolutely no reason why he shouldn't be just as brilliant this year but let's see," said Tizzard.
"HeÂ has done plenty of fast work in the last month and is ready to run now. He's bound to improve and we're very happy with him,
"We couldn't go for the King George without a run, so he goes toÂ NewburyÂ and, all being well, he'll then head to Kempton."
Thistlecrack won this same race two years ago, when just out of novice hurdling.
That season no horse got within six lengths of him and he produced a dominating Stayers' Hurdle victory at the Cheltenham Festival, in addition to big race wins at Ascot and Aintree.
Last season, as a novice chaser, his stunning win over stablemate Cue Card in the King George VI Chase installed him as a red-hot favourite for the Gold Cup.
But then there was that narrow defeat, in attritional conditions, in the Cotswold Chase on Trials Day, his conqueror Many Clouds collapsing and dying just moments later.
Tizzard was sanguine at the loss but within days admitted he'd been â€˜hit for six' with the news his charge would miss the rest of the season with a slight tendon tear.
Not a man prone to superlatives, Tizzard admits he's excited to have his crowd favourite back in action. And he believes an outing over timber remains the best option ahead of the defence of Thistlecrack's title at Kempton on Boxing Day.
The mid-season feature is shaping up to be a classic, with the best chasers lining up their bids, from the unpredictable but brilliant Might Bite to the footsure Bristol De Mai, a storming winner of last weekend's Betfair Chase at Haydock.
"We aren't going to get ahead of ourselves, we learned that earlier this year. Lots can happen across a season, lots can go wrong," added Tizzard, who lost the highly-rated Flemenshill this summer, a record Â£480,000 recruit from the Tattersalls Ireland Cheltenham January Sale, who died after after having a heart attack during light exercise.
"I feel Thistlecrack's legs once a week now. I have a little feel and they always seem absolutely fine. I don't think I can remember which leg it was now - that's a good sign!"
However, the Dorset handler is taking on Harry Fry's defending champion Unowhatimeanharry at Newbury, who recently won at Aintree but is conceding 6lb to Tizzard's returning star.
Fry has also big plans for his charge this season. He has won ten from 11 starts since going to his yard and there is determination he'll upgrade this year's Stayers' Hurdle third at next year's Festival.
And this race has a strong pedigree in pointing out winners of the Festival's three-mile showpiece, with Baracouda, Inglis Drever and Big Buck's all winners of both.
"Thistlecrack is a wonderful horse and we've enjoyed watching all his success. Now we meet him with our own stable star, so it's going to be fascinating," he said.
"He's come out of his win at Aintree absolutely bouncing, he's giving away some weight but we are going in full of confidence."