Hundreds of well-wishers braved freezing conditions on Saturday morning to give Native River a reception fit for a king following his victory in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Rarely can the village of Henstridge Ash in Templecombe, South Somerset have witnessed a crowd as large as that gathered at the Virginia Ash pub to celebrate the success of Colin Tizzard’s gelding in the blue riband event 24 hours earlier.
While temperatures may have been biting, those present were soon warmed by the sight of the eight-year-old stepping out of his box before being paraded to the sound of cheers and applause.
After being among the final ones to leave the racecourse and having watched countless replays of the big race until the early hours – Milborne Port handler Tizzard was still mesmerised by the victory, along with the turnout to greet his new stable star.
Tizzard said: “I thought we would get 20 or 30 turn up, not a few hundred.
“We stayed at the course until they chucked us out. We came back here and it was amazing. I went home at 1am and watched the re-runs until 3am. I just didn’t want to go to bed, as it is a dream come true to all of us.
“Richard Johnson and him gel like nothing else. Last year he didn’t get up the hill, as we raced him plenty, but this year he had that energy left in him.
“It was probably the most significant thing of the season that he hadn’t been raced that much.
“We had nine Grade One winners last year and we knew we could not maintain that. I’ve always wanted to have a Gold Cup winner and Cue Card tried his best to win me one.
“We bought him as we thought he would be a nice chaser, but he has just progressed into what he is now.”
Tizzard confirmed Native River is unlikely to run again this season and will instead be prepared for the defence of his crown in 12 months’ time.
He said: “I don’t think we will run him again this year. We will try to win next year’s Gold Cup with this one again.
“Everything for the rest of his life will be geared around trying to win another Gold Cup, not trying to win a King George, as I don’t think that would suit him. Whether he has one or two runs or three runs before, I don’t know.”
Although Native River was very much the main attraction, his owners Garth and Anne Broom, who operate under the name of Brocade Racing, also enjoyed plenty of attention after posing for the cameras throughout the morning.
Garth said: “It is unreal. It is lovely. I said it is a win for everybody. In the stable, we share all the highs and the lows.
“It is lovely that people have been taking to our horse and have wanted to be pictured with him and us with the Gold Cup.
“It has impressed on us a bit more now that we have done it.
“When you think that Willie Mullins has never won it with the firepower he has got, that puts it into perspective.
“Rich Ricci came up to congratulate us, as did Gordon Elliott. It was lovely.”
Travelling head lad Richard Young has spent plenty of time in the horse box with Native River, transporting him from track to track, and the victory will be one that lives long in his memory.
He said: “It was unreal. It looked a really open Gold Cup. When they landed together over the second-last I thought ‘you have got to find a bit more’. But he is relentless and he put a good field to the sword.
“He is a horse of a lifetime for us guys and the man aboard him (Johnson) – they just got together like strawberries and cream.
“There is no feeling like it. You get up in the morning on those cold wet days – we’ve had some great wins over the last couple of years, but to get the big one is what it is all about.”
Jubilant scenes were not only witnessed at the track, but also by those back at the yard including the man who knows Native River best, his groom, Hameer Singh.
He said: “It is a dream come true.
“I’ve looked after good horses for a long time. I am lucky to have looked after him.
“I watched it in the yard, as we were quite busy. I was crying when he won, I couldn’t believe it.
“This is my best ever moment. There are no words to describe how good it feels.”
Dual Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning trainer Noel Chance was thrilled to see son-in-law Richard Johnson claim his second victory in the blue riband aboard Native River.
Chance said: “I was at Cheltenham for the week – I never miss it – and obviously I was delighted for Richard.
“Eighteen years is a long time between drinks.”
“What I felt watching the race was that after two miles it was a two-horse race between him and Might Bite. You could see at that stage the rest of the jockeys were holding onto nothing.
“It was going to be between the two of them, unless one of them fell, and it was marvellous performance from the horse (Native River), the trainer and it goes without saying, the jockey.
“They are two very good horses, Native River and Might Bite, and it was a great race between the two of them.”
Native River is as short as 5-1 to become the first horse to win back-to-back renewals of the Gold Cup since the legendary Best Mate landed three consecutive runnings between 2002 and 2005.
However, none of the previous three winners - Coneygree, Don Cossack and Sizing John - even turned up the following year due to injury.
Mr Mulligan and Looks Like Trouble also failed to defend the crown.
“That stats aren’t good, you have to say that, and I’m speaking from experience as both of my winners didn’t make it back the following year,” Chance added.
“Having said that, Coneygree was the first novice to win it Captain Christy (1974), so stats are there to be broken.
“I hope Native River does make it back next year, obviously. He’s a proper Gold Cup horse.”