COMEBACK horses Native River and Altior proved their Cheltenham credentials after marking their belated reappearances with foot perfect victories at Newbury.
Colin Tizzard’s Native River heads to the blue riband Gold Cup after pulling clear of the perennial runner-up Cloudy Dream in the Denman Chase – Ruth Jefferson’s gallant grey heads to the Ryanair Chase.
Meanwhile Altior, Nicky Henderson’s successor to Sprinter Sacre, is odds-on favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase after easing past Grade One winner Politologue with effortless ease.
First Native River. Champion jockey Richard Johnson has always held this horse in the highest regard since finishing second in the 2016 West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby.
Victories in Newbury’s Hennessy Gold Cup, and then the Welsh National at Chepstow, were followed by a gutsy third in last season’s Gold Cup before nearly a year on the sidelines.
Yet Native River, representing an out-of-sorts stable that has endured a number of high-profile setbacks over the winter, jumped with fluency and Cloudy Dream struggled to go with the pacesetter when Johnson increased the pace in the home straight.
“I think that he is back in great form and, if he can run the same race as he did in the Gold Cup last year, it has to give him every chance again this year,” said the winning rider.
“It looks a very open race – it’s still a very tough race like it is every year – but he can’t be too far away if he can reproduce that run.
“He has that little bit of class and that’s what makes him into a Grade One horse. He has picked up well from the ditch home and it was almost the perfect comeback run.”
As for Malton-based Jefferson, she ruled out a Gold Cup tilt – Cloudy Dream clearly does not have the stamina for three miles plus – and will drop back in trip for the Ryanair Chase where rivals could include stablemate Waiting Patiently.
“Cloudy Dream jumped really well, he’s just hasn’t stayed over three miles on this ground,” she said. “We’ll now go for the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. It’s not an easy race but that’s where we’ll head.
“He’s run a nice race today. Today they’ve gone an honest gallop from start to finish. He has jumped and travelled and just done everything right – he just hasn’t quite seen the trip out to suggest a Gold Cup would suit him, so we’ll go for the Ryanair this time.
“Aintree and the Betway Bowl is something to potentially look at. Aintree is an easier and sharper track and the three miles there won’t be as much as a problem for him.”
Cloudy Dream is no back number – he was runner up in last season’s Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham to Altior who extended his unbeaten record over hurdles, and fences, to 12 with a sublime win in the Betfair Exchange Chase.
Given that the horse has had a well-documented breathing operation and has not raced since last April, the aforementioned Henderson – and jockey Nico de Boinville – were clearly perturbed by rain-softened heavy ground.
However the difficult decision to run was vindicated by Altior proving his superiority with, arguably, the most eyecatching performance of the 2017-18 National Hunt season.
“He’s travelled well, he has so many gears and he has just got class – he is just pure class,” said an elated Henderson.
“He is not going to run again until March so hopefully there are no further issues or problems, but you have to say that was just perfection.
“If he was going to get beaten that was today, he was more vulnerable today than he was ever going to be, but he’s beaten some good horses there and that was superb.”
As for the inevitable comparisons with the now retired Sprinter Sacre, Henderson was phlegmatic. “Altior has to win in March and then he is getting close to the big boys’ shoes.”
North Yorkshire jockey Harry Bannister – who was featured in The Yorkshire Post on Saturday – continued his career-best season with an across-the-card double the same day.
Victory at Uttoxeter on Ceann Sibheal was followed by The Dubai Way defying top weight at Warwick to extend his winning sequence to four.