IT is a measure of champion jockey Richard Johnson’s longevity that it is nearly 17 years since he rode Looks Like Trouble to Cheltenham Gold Cup glory.
Today’s Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury will reveal whether Native River has the tactical speed to carry the evergreen Johnson to a second blue riband triumph.
This is a horse which has not looked back since running on gamely to finish an eyecatching second in Wetherby’s West Yorkshire Hurdle at the end of October.
“I couldn’t be happier, there’s more to come,” Johnson told The Yorkshire Post in the aftermath of a competitive race won by Silsol.
So it proved. The Colin Tizzard-trained stayer then won Newbury’s Hennessy Gold Cup in a hard-fought finish before oozing class to land Chepstow’s Welsh National.
With illustrious stablemate Thistlecrack proving fallible when defeated by the ill-fated Many Clouds in Cheltenham’s Cotswold Chase last month, today’s eagerly-awaited clash between Native River and Bristol De Mai – runaway winner of Haydock’s Peter Marsh Chase on his last outing – takes on a totally different complexion.
Johnson cannot wait for a race in which he expects the front-running Native River, second favourite behind Thistlecrack for the Gold Cup, to set a searching pace in the hope of diminishing his progressive rival’s finishing speed.
“I’m delighted to be getting back on board him,” said Native River’s jockey last night.
“The Hennessy and the Welsh National were two fantastic runs and hopefully he can put up another great performance. On those two runs, he is the one they have got to beat.
“They were both very good wins, but carrying top weight in the Welsh National – as a weight-carrying performance that’s got to be right up there, I would have thought.
“He was the class horse in the race and he had that bit of class when they turned in. He did seem to find a bit more, when most horses would just keep going at the one pace.
“He is very straightforward. He stays and jumps and does what it says on the tin. He has got a very good attitude and he keeps giving. He looks like a horse that is progressing and that is important at this time of year. Bristol De Mai was very impressive at Haydock and there is very little between them on handicap ratings.”
It is only five years since Synchronised, ridden by Johnson’s great rival Sir AP McCoy, won the Welsh National and Gold Cup in the same season.
It is also significant the Tizzard stable declined to give Native River a Grand National entry, a clear statement of intent with regard to Cheltenham.
Yet the Bristol De Mai team ooze confidence ahead of a race in which the Paul Nicholls-trained Le Mercurey completes the select three-runner field.
Even though the initial target was Cheltenham’s two-mile five-furlong Ryanair Chase after the horse’s imperious Haydock win, Thistlecrack’s defeat prompted connections to reconsider and go for gold.
“With Native River we are guaranteed a proper test and I’m looking forward to it,” said bullish trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies.
“Over the three miles, I hope we’ll be too speedy for him, but time will tell.
“He answered questions at Haydock and the way the second horse (Otago Trail) won last weekend bolstered the form enormously. He’s always been speedy and in his early days he didn’t settle. Now he settles, he’s proved he’s a three-miler.
“This race is the perfect gap until Cheltenham and the Gold Cup is very much the plan. Things can change, obviously, but at the moment it’s the Gold Cup. Everything is coming right for him, we’ve discovered his distance and he settles more. With Thistlecrack getting beaten, it opens things up a bit more in the Gold Cup.”
Bristol De Mai’s jockey Daryl Jacob is not daunted by the size of the task. “What Native River has done this year has been exceptional, his Welsh National run was top drawer. It’s not an easy race to win – I rode Tidal Bay with top weight and he could only finish third,” he said.
“It will tell us exactly where we are. We’ve been quietly excited about him for a long time now – every year he has won big races and done us very proud. If we’re a live contender for the Gold Cup, we’ve got to be going close.”