Though the record books will say 15 runners started the three- and-a-quarter-mile contest, the reality is that it was a two-horse race from the start as Johnson made it a stamina test like no other.
In desperate conditions akin to those that Native River conquered when landing the 2016 Welsh National, victory vindicated farmer-cum-trainer Colin Tizzard’s decision to race his champion so sparingly.
Owned by Garth and Ann Broom, last season’s Gold Cup third had just one prep race – a victory over North Yorkshire Ruth Jefferson’s Cloudy Dream at Newbury last month – before this epic struggle.
Though Malton challenger Definitly Red started well for trainer Brian Ellison and Danny Cook, he, too, struggled on the bottomless ground before plugging on past beaten horses to finish a far from disgraced sixth.
Yet, just as this week’s heavy rain put paid to the Yorkshire dream of a first Gold Cup win in 25 years, it may have also prevented Might Bite’s trainer Nicky Henderson becoming the first man in history to win the blue riband race, as well as the Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase, in the same week. He was that close.
Johnson, later banned for seven days and fined £6,550 for overuse of the whip, had made his intentions clear from the start, but he was shadowed all the way by De Boinville and Might Bite who enhanced their reputatons in defeat. At one point the rivals had a commanding lead over the remaining runners.
In a week dominated by the Irish, the main home challengers were – for once – vying for supremacy and it looked like Might Bite was going the better of the two as they turned for home.
However, the King George VI Chase winner was just found wanting from the last, as the stamina of Native River kicked in.
Johnson had said Native River was a special horse after finishing second in the 2016 West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby.
Now the Herefordshire farmer’s son has a second Gold Cup to follow the triumph of Looks Like Trouble at the turn of the century. Then, he took big race success for granted and thought it would be the norm. Now, he’s soaking up the adulation.
“It’s been a long 18 years!” joked the 40-year-old who is on the cusp of a third consecutive jockeys’ championship after spending so much of his career in the shadow of the now retired Sir AP McCoy.
“To be honest, I was a passenger. He’s a fantastic horse to ride. He loves jumping and almost waits for things in front and just does what he has to.
“I thought we had gone quite steady but sometimes when you are on a good horse it doesn’t feel that quick, and I thought I needed to move it on a gear down the back straight and the more I asked from him, the better he jumped.
“From four out onwards he just kept picking up. I could see Might Bite next to me and going to two fences out he looked to be travelling quite well, but I knew Native River is a stayer and I felt we had to try to give him as much to do as possible.
“He answered every call and at the last he was very brave. Up the run-in he just kept going. It was very testing conditions out there – I’m not sure we will see them as testing again, but he’s a warrior and it’s a pleasure to ride him. I know for some people the Grand National is the ‘people’s race’, but this is the best of the best. To win it now twice is fantastic.”
This was also a coming of age win for the aforementioned Tizzard – the Dorset dairy farmer’s rise to the top is now complete and a reaffirmation of National Hunt racing’s roots in the countryside and agriculture.
In recent years, his training skills have been showcased by Thistlecrack, who missed this year’s Gold Cup with injury, and multiple Grade One winner Cue Card who is likely to be retired after being pulled up in Thursday’s Ryanair Chase.
“It’s unreal. It’s the fourth day and the Irish have been winning everything – I was thinking our form is not as good as we imagined. Then Richard Johnson gives that brave horse that sort of ride and everything changes,” said Tizzard. “When Might Bite came alongside, and might even have headed him, I thought ‘oh no’ but then Richard was brilliant. You wouldn’t tell him what to do, because he knew what he was going to do a week ago.
“Native River wasn’t quite right after Cheltenham last year and we couldn’t get him going any earlier this season. We made a plan to give him one run at Newbury before coming here, but I was getting a bit jumpy at Christmas and thought we ought to run him then. However, we stuck to the plan and it’s paid off.
“I came here at 17 and 18 years of age, and never thought I would win the Gold Cup and I’ve just done it. If you ask me again I’ll start crying again.”
De Boinville was gracious in defeat, saying: “The rain just came at the wrong time for us. He ran a cracking race, though, and take nothing away from the winner there. He’s a true champion, he ground it out on that ground.”
A race to rival the great battles between Kauto Star and Denman, this will – rightly – be remembered as Richard Johnson’s Gold Cup. His sport’s number one ambassador, there couldn’t have been a more popular winner of Cheltenham’s ultimate race.
As he said: “Eighteen years since Looks Like Trouble seems a long time!”