thE smile etched across the face of Jonjo O’Neill junior said it all as Native River put down a marker for this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup and, possibly, Grand National.
Not only had Colin Tizzard’s staying steeplechaser led from start to finish in the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury – but his young jockey had passed the biggest test of his burgeoning career.
He had every right to be quietly satisfied.
And, as leading luminaries like Ruby Walsh, arguably the best horseman ever, heaped praise on the calmness of O’Neill jnr, and his compactness in the saddle, the 23-year-old was determined to enjoy the occasion.
Though he was deputising for Native River’s regular rider Richard Johnson who is on the injury sidelines with a broken arm, O’Neill jnr – this season’s leading conditional – is an ambitious jockey who is clearly going places.
And while he’s been brought up with horses – his father Jonjo O’Neill is one of National Hunt racing’s most legendary figures – Native River was a different class in this Grade Two test.
I enjoyed it. I had a few races throughout the day that I had to think about. There was a lot of pressure but I tried to take it in my stride and I knew I was on the best horse.Jockey Jonjo O’Neill jnr
“He was deadly,” the victorious jockey told The Yorkshire Post. “He just does it so effectively. You could tell that he’s a class apart from the average horse.”
“I enjoyed it. I had a few races throughout the day that I had to think about. There was a lot of pressure but I tried to take it in my stride and I knew I was on the best horse.”
It also spoke volumes about racing’s camaraderie that O’Neill junior was able to telephone the aforementioned Johnson, the reigning champion jockey, to seek his counsel about Native River who has not looked back since chasing home Silso in the 2016 West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby.
Victories in the Hennessy Gold Cup and Welsh Grand National followed before Johnson rode Native River, owned by Garth and Ann Broom, to Cheltenham Gold Cup glory in 2018 after an epic battle with Might Bite who, coincidentally, was a remote third in Saturday’s race.
“I rang ‘Dicky’ and he just said he’s very straightforward, to be positive over the first couple of fences to ensure he gets travelling, and to enjoy him,” explained O’Neill jnr.
“He was a great thrill to ride. Though I had schooled him at Mr Tizzard’s in the week, you also speak, wherever possible, to the fella who has ridden the horse before to ask what they know and if there are any quirks.
“Because Native River is such a popular horse everyone knows how he races – but it’s important to find out as much information as possible before you ride any horse.
“There’s not many horses like him in the country and I’m very lucky to be asked to ride him. The run will have really sharpened him up. He was entitled to win and couldn’t have done it any better.”
Though Native River, now 10, appears to need soft or heavy ground to be seen at his best, the white-faced gelding, who was wearing blinkers to aid his concentration, is the forgotten horse when it comes to next month’s Gold Cup.
However, Tizzard appears content to stay under the radar with this front-runner whose stamina will make the Gold Cup a real test.
“It was a lovely prep race for the Gold Cup,” he said. “Jonjo felt as if he hadn’t really got serious with him.
“It is quite interesting, when they jumped the cross fence, twice the young man (O’Neill jnr) thought they were going long and the old man (Native River) said ‘not yet’. That cross fence can undo a lot of horses, but he is neat and handy.”
The trainer added of O’Neill jnr “He is a good young rider and mentally he is a strong young man.
He’s been put under the microscope a bit this week – everyone is hanging on his every word, and he handles it very well. We like him, as he has grown up with the ups and downs of racing.”
There’s every expectation Johnson will return to the saddle in time for the Gold Cup, though O’Neill jnr says that he is content to remain “the sub”.
And publication of the Randox Health Grand National weights on Tuesday will indicate the possibility of a Grand National tilt.
“Traditionally the Grand National has been quite a gruelling race, but not so anymore,” added Tizzard.
“It is a lovely big handicap with lovely modified fences.
I think he should go there, but I’ve got a little bit of work to do (with the owners).”