THE only people unperturbed by Native River’s second-place finish in Wetherby’s West Yorkshire Hurdle were the two most important people of all – trainer Colin Tizzard and jockey Richard Johnson.
Running on after the final flight, the performance put the horse spot on for Newbury’s Hennessy Gold Cup, which was duly won, before the six-year-old produced a mighty weight-carrying performance to land yesterday’s Coral Welsh National at Chepstow.
If it was not for precocious stablemate Thistlecrack, who was imperious in the King George VI Chase at Kempton 24 hours previously, Native River would be much shorter than 12-1 for next year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup – but those odds might prove generous if the blue riband race becomes a real test of stamina.
The third horse in 70 years to carry 11st 12lb to glory, the subsequently ill-fated Synchronised won the 2011 renewal under AP McCoy before a remarkable win at Cheltenham.
Prominent throughout, Native River burst clear in the home straight from the lightly-weighted Raz De Maree with the mudlark Houblon Des Obeaux a far from disgraced third.
Johnson, who was winning the race for the first time since Edmond’s triumph in 1999, said: “It’s unbelievable. I wasn’t happy for the first mile and I think he definitely wants better ground, but he’s such a trier. After four or five fences he started to get into his rhythm.
“The Gold Cup is always about top-class chasers that stay really well. He’s got that in abundance – to win a Welsh National off top weight is a hell of a performance.”
The win more than vindicated Tizzard’s persuasive powers after he had to convince the owners to enter Native River in the Welsh National under top weight.
“He’s a lovely stayer. Any other season, without the likes of Thistlecrack and Cue Card, he’d be anyone’s champion,” he said.
“He’s a stayer so there’s nowhere else he can go apart from the Gold Cup.
“We’ve got options with Cue Card. He could drop back for the Ryanair. There’s all to play for. We were actually thinking before we came here (yesterday) that Native River could go the World Hurdle route. You’ve got to keep an open mind, but I think we’ll stay chasing now.”
As for Thistlecrack, he was lauded as “a horse in a million” by Henrietta Knight who won three successive Gold Cups with Best Mate. “I think he’s a mighty horse,” she said. “He’s so well made – he’d win in the show ring.
“He was extremely well ridden by Tom Scudamore. I think he understands the horse very well.
“He was careful with him at the last two fences rather than fire him at them and stand off two far.
“I thought the partnership was superb. He’s the most exciting horse we’ve seen for a long time. I think Thistlecrack is one in a million. Thistlecrack is just perfection. I really hope he wins the Gold Cup.”
Meanwhile, Noel Fehily rode the first four winners at Kempton, headlined by a foot-perfect Altior in the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase.
Yorkist won Wetherby’s Castleford Chase for trainer Dan Skelton and his brother Harry who was in the saddle. The horse was previously trained at Middleham by Micky Hammond whose Just Cameron was third.