Native River is as tough as they come
KAUTO Star won a £1m bonus, provided by Betfair, when landing the Betfair Chase, the King George VI Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2006/7.
Jockey Club Racecourses have dangled the same carrot since 2015, designed to encourage trainers to target this race as a key element of the season.
It hasn’t necessarily worked as may have been hoped initially with the bonus-less period between 2009 and 2015 generally attracting larger fields and as many big-name horses as the three races since.
This renewal, though, feels just a little bit special.
Three-time Betfair Chase winner Cue Card did his best to match Kauto Star’s achievements, but came up one shy, both in number of wins in this race and when winning the first two legs of the bonus in 2015/16, falling when still in contention at Cheltenham in the final leg.
He chased home the Nigel Twiston-Daviestrained Bristol de Mai last year, the grey becoming the widest-margin winner of any Grade 1 race over jumps (57 lengths) in the process. The winning distance was in stark contrast to Kauto Star’s 2009 win, which saw Twiston-Davies’ Imperial Commander beaten by a nose.
Still only seven, this race will have been the longterm target for Bristol de Mai since he was second (beaten seven lengths) to Might Bite in the Betway Bowl Chase at Aintree in April. He’s not always been the most convincing jumper of fences, especially when pressurised for the lead on quicker ground, but he is unbeaten at Haydock in three starts and, while slower ground would be ideal, he’s not to be underestimated; this is very much his backyard.
With Cue Card retired, his trainer Colin Tizzard could saddle two this year, with Thistlecrack set to join Native River. It seems a little glib to cover Thistlecrack in one paragraph, but the former World Hurdle winner, who landed the King George as a novice in 2016, has struggled with injury since the 2017 Cotswold Chase.
He wasn’t able to run up to his best when fourth to Might Bite in last season’s King George, his only chase start last term, and he arrives here as the one of the ‘big-four’ with easily the most to prove.
It has since transpired that Native River’s sparing 2017/18 campaign was through necessity rather than design, but it panned out perfectly, his late reappearance in the Denman Chase at Newbury in February putting him spoton for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham a month later, where testing underfoot conditions gave him the edge over Might Bite.
Native River has no problem with quicker ground – five of his 11 wins have come on going described by Timeform as good-to-soft or good – it’s just that his grinding front-running style means that he is often still going in testing conditions when others are crying enough.
That was the case at Cheltenham, where Might Bite’s stamina ebbed away after the last, having loomed up threateningly two out. Ground conditions and the sharper nature of this track appear to sway things in Might Bite’s favour here, though it’s worth pointing out that the Betfair Chase distance was extended by one and a half furlongs last season, primarily to give the horses a longer run into the first bend, and as a result there are now 19 obstacles to be jumped rather than 18, with the final fence in the home straight on the Lancashire Course now negotiated three times in total.
As well as four-time winner Kauto Star, Paul Nicholls trained Silviniaco Conti to a brace of wins in this race, and the Ditcheat handler saddles Clan des Obeaux, who was third behind Might Bite and Bristol de Mai when last seen at Aintree in April. Nicholls appears focused on reestablishing himself as the go-to trainer for big Saturday winners, and the fact that he tasks his young stayer with such a formidable task on his reappearance shows how highly he rates the horse. He’s still only a six-year-old (youngest in this line-up) and remains with untapped potential, so it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see him get closer to Might Bite now.
There is a chance that this will turn tactical, but with Bristol de Mai and Native River in the line-up, that chance looks very slim. Might Bite, no stranger to making the running himself, is more adaptable in regards to the way he can be ridden, but Native River makes most appeal at the prices.
He’s as tough as they come, has won at seven different racetracks, and will have no problem with either the forecast good-tosoft ground, nor with any rain that might fall.
Battling finish: Native River, right, wins the Cheltenham Gold Cup