Native River saves home honour with epic Gold Cup defeat of Might Bite
Richard Johnson wins second ‘blue riband’ 18 years after first
Richard Johnson on Native River celebrates after winning the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase at Cheltenham, England. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
A Cheltenham festival that threatened to turn into an Irish benefit saw Native River retrieve home honour with a superb Timico Gold Cup success on Friday.
The quintessentially English combination of veteran champion jockey Richard Johnson and trainer Colin Tizzard secured “blue riband” glory with their 5-1 winner after a classic head-to-head battle with the 4-1 favourite Might Bite.
The 33-1 Irish outsider Irish Anibale Fly ran the race of his life to eventually finish third and Road To Respect for Michael O’Leary’s all-conquering Gigginstown Stud team was fourth.
However this was a Gold Cup ultimately fought over by two gallant but very contrasting chasers. The imperious looking Might Bite is in possession of the sort of class to go with his looks. Native River will only ever be an oil-painting to his nearest and dearest.
For much of the race he held an edge over his rival. Yet the ease with which Might Bite stalked him stoked suspicions of an honest yeoman cutting a path for his aristocratic superior. Appearances can be deceptive though and not just with horses.
The youthful Johnson famously was in a relationship with the Queen’s eldest granddaughter, Zara Tindall, and always appeared uncomfortable with the scrutiny it brought. Now 40, the man known as “Dickie” still resolutely pursues one of the great racing careers in low key style.
Maybe spending much of that career playing second fiddle to Tony McCoy in the jockeys championship encouraged such modesty. More likely is it is as second-nature to Johnson as it appears to be to Tizzard.
After Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott’s domination of the week’s action, it was left to the West Country farmer with the “oo-arr” accent – whose familiarity with flash is probably only in terms of cleaning - to rally English pride in the race that matters more than any other.
Tizzard endured repeated Gold Cup frustration with Cue Card in recent years and had Native River finish third to Sizing John a year ago. But this was his day, signalled perhaps in the preceding Albert Bartlett Hurdle which Tizzard won with the 33-1 outsider, Kilbricken Storm.
“To win the Gold Cup is everything in anyone’s life. It doesn’t get any better,” he said immediately afterwards. “It’s the fourth day and the Irish have been winning everything. Looking at the last three days I thought we had no chance!”
A horse with Native River’s courage, stamina and jumping always gives you a chance. With Johnson famous for his never-say-die approach as well, the impression of ease Might Bite exuded throughout most of the race was never telling the full story.
Typically Johnson was at work before Nico de Boinville who was trying to give Might Bite’s trainer an unprecedented Triple Crown of Cheltenham’s greatest prizes. But in the straight, battle was truly joined.
To his credit Might Bite never flinched. There was no repeat of the waywardness that saw him almost throw away the previous year’s RSA up the hill. However on ground a lot more testing than 2017 Native River’s grit saw him grind out a four and a half length success.
It was an emotional success for Johnson who won his other Gold Cup 18 years previously on Looks Like Trouble and is on course for a third jockeys championship at the end of this season.
“It’s been a long 18 years!” he joked before characteristically giving the credit to Native River. “It’s always down to the horse. And very few horses are as straightforward as he is, or as brave. He answered every call. It’s very testing. I’m not sure we’ll see as testing again. But he’s a warrior.”
No one could question Might Bite’s resolve this time and de Boinville believed the wet conditions ultimately undid Henderson’s dream of adding to the Champion Chase and Champion Hurdle earlier in the week.
“I think we got our head in front winging the last and then the ground on that track is the worst from the last to the line. We’ve tied up, pure and simple,” he said. “Taking nothing away from the winner: he is a true champion to have ground it out on that ground.”
Henderson agreed and said: “He went straight. There were no quirky moments. He did nothing wrong at all. It was just he was out on his feet. Well done Dickie and Colin - at least we had two English ones here for a change!”
Tony Martin was delighted with Anibale Fly’s running on effort and said: “They were just two good horses in front. Third in the Gold Cup can’t be bad. It’s probably as deep as Cheltenham has seen the ground for some time and we coped.”
Our Duke didn’t and was pulled up. His trainer Jessica Harrington blamed ground she described s “appalling.”
No one coped better than Native River.