COLIN Tizzard believes Native River is well-equipped to become the first horse since Best Mate to win back-to-back renewals of the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.
No horse has successfully defended the coveted title since the Henrietta Knight-trained gelding recorded the last of his three consecutive victories in 2004 under Jim Culloty.
Recent history may be against Native River who has been defeated in the Betfair Chase and King George VI Chase this season, but Tizzard senses a return to Cheltenham can help his stable star – the mount of champion jockey Richard Johnson – get back on track.
Tizzard is also due to saddle King George runner-up Thistlecrack who is a former winner of the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham under Tom Scudamore and Elegant Escape who landed the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow – a marathon previously won by Native River.
On the defending champion who would relish rain to be seen at his best, Tizzard said: “He is a Gold Cup winner that got beat by a very good horse around Haydock first time.
“When he went out in the Feltham (at Kempton) in 2015 he was always looking to go out left-handed, and he’s done exactly the same in the King George.
“Five out, you thought he was going to pull up, but he stayed on really strongly – and on the line, you would say if had another two furlongs he would be right up there with them.
“The Gold Cup is three miles two – the King George is three miles.
“The King George is run 56 seconds faster than the Gold Cup – and that brings Native River, with his stamina, right back into it.”
Tizzard is happy that his reigning champion sets the standard.
“There are young horses coming through, but that doesn’t concern me at all,” he said. “We’ve had a lovely preparation with him, and not run the legs off him all winter.
“The race will be a stamina race – and if he is on song, which he should be, he has got as good a chance as he did last year.”
While the Pat Kelly-trained Presenting Percy, winner of last year’s RSA Chase, is the chief danger despite not running over larger obstacles this season, Tizzard says the aforementioned Thistlecrack and Elegant Escape are worthy contenders.
He said: “Thistlecrack is a cracking horse. He has won a King George and he got quite close at Kempton to Clan Des Obeaux this season. He is 11 years old, and you can’t get away from that, but he has proved he has good form round Cheltenham.
“Elegant Escape has won a Welsh National and been second in a Ladbrokes Trophy. He has done everything right and is a young, improving horse. He has looked very good on the gallops, and he is the one that is still improving.”
Arkle Trophy ante-post favourite Le Richebourg has been ruled out of the Cheltenham Festival after suffering a season-ending injury.
The JP McManus-owned six-year-old – trained by Joseph O’Brien has won four of his five starts over fences this season – including successive Grade One triumphs at Leopardstown in the Racing Post Novice Chase and the Irish Arkle.
However this prestigious two -mile test for novice chasers still promises to be one of the races of the meeting with Lalor, Kalashnikov and the progressive Glen Forsa all due to run.
All three of Scotland’s Grand National contenders – One For Arthur, Lakeview Lad and Captain Redbeard – could line up in the Premier Chase at Kelso on Saturday.
However Doncaster’s Grimthorpe Chase on the same afternoon, a noted National trial, has attracted just 12 entries because of the likelihood of quick ground on Town Moor.
Yorkshire hopes rest with Peter Niven’s Brian Boranha who was unplaced in last month’s Sky Bet Chase. Just 86 horses have been entered for the seven-race card, with two races reopened due to a lack of numbers.