Na­tive River is as tough as they come

The Racing Paper - - Tv Races And News -

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

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