Aiming to turn King George into a stamina test

CHELTENHAM Gold Cup hero Native River's proven stamina could prove decisive in today's King George VI Chase, jump racing's mid-winter classic.

Ready for big test: Jockey Richard Johnson and Native River.

Though Kempton’s configuration is perceived to favour speed horses, champion jockey Richard Johnson will ensure a searching pace on Native River.

With no doubts about the eight-year-old’s stamina following a Welsh National success two years ago, these tactics could expose the vulnerabilities of his illustrious rivals.

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Trained by Colin Tizzard, Native River made a pleasing reappearance when second to Bristol De Mai in last month’s Betfair Chase at Haydock.

But while the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained grey reopposes today, Bristol De Mai’s imperious form at Haydock has not, to date, been replicated on other racetracks.

Back in third was Native River’s stablemate Thistlecrack, who could be a major player for jockey Tom Scudamore if the 2016 King George victor jumps more fluently.

The most popular winner would be Ruth Jefferson’s Waiting Patiently, who remains unbeaten in six starts over fences – including an eye-catching win at Kempton in January shortly before the trainer’s father Malcolm died.

No Yorkshire-trained chaser has won this Grade One race over three miles since 1985 when Wayward Lad, then in the hands of Monica Dickinson, prevailed under Graham Bradley.

While Malton-based Jefferson is understandably hopeful of a big run, the Richard Collins-owned Waiting Patiently has not raced since landing the Grade One Ascot Chase in February and is stepping up to three miles for the first time.

Also unproven over the trip is Politologue, who is attempting to give trainer Paul Nicholls a record 10th win in the race.

Ironically Politologue is owned by John Hales whose One Man, a doubtful stayer, did win two King Georges in the 1990s.

However, Native River, according to owner Garth Broom, has fewer questions to answer than many of his rivals.

“I think you’ve still got to be a fair stayer to win the King George. Because they tend to get racing a long way out it brings stamina into play - it also tends to suit those who race prominently,” he said.

“He hasn’t been out of the first three over fences. In fact he’s won 11 of his 22 and been out of the frame only three times in his life – and one of those was a fall. He’s the horse of a lifetime.

“We were delighted with how he ran (at Haydock) and if he runs a similar race, while it’s nice to win these races if you get placed you are doing well.”

Native River’s only previous run at Kempton came in 2015 when third.

“He ran all right there as a novice,” added Broom. “But he wasn’t the horse he is now, and it was partly human error that day because we held him up – we ride him a lot differently now.”

The defending champion is Might Bite, who won last year’s King George before chasing home Native River in an epic Gold Cup.

However, the Nicky Henderson-trained chaser was a bitterly disappointing last of five in the aforementioned Betfair Chase, a performance that has perplexed connections.

But the champion trainer was encouraged by a piece of work from Might Bite on the gallops over the weekend alongside dual Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air, who lines up in the Grade One Christmas Hurdle.

“Obviously it didn’t all go to plan at Haydock so I’m just drawing a line through it and focusing on getting him back for this,” said Henderson.

“He looks fantastic, but this is a mighty race and so much better than last year and I think it’s fair to say he has to produce a personal best, but I couldn’t be happier with him and he’s there to give it his best shot.

“I think Politologue will get the trip, in which case he will be very dangerous, and Thistlecrack ran very well at Haydock so shouldn’t be discounted either.”