Native River solid enough to land Gold Cup this time
Cheltenham: Nicky Henderson chases historic achievement with enigmatic Might Bite
Richard Johnson riding Native River to victory in The Betfair Denman Steeple Chase at Newbury in February. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Native River doesn’t bring glamour to the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup. His reputation leans more to admirable than aristocratic. No one’s ever going to mistake him for one of the greats. But in a Gold Cup full of uncertainty he brings reassuring solidity and it’s a year when that could be enough.
This is a Gold Cup with a long-time favourite who on the three occasions he’s been in contention to win at Cheltenham has, to varying extents, veered off a straight line up the hill.
In his defence, Might Bite still managed to win two of them. His RSA rally last year reflected an exceptional talent.
But, if it’s a toss of a coin about the most talented runner in the race ducking out when the going gets tough, it’s little wonder a bumper field of 18 runners are prepared to pitch their hat into the ‘Blue Riband’ ring.
There’s a school of thought Might Bite’s natural ability is such he can win a Gold Cup without being forced out of his comfort zone.
But it’s a rare renewal that doesn’t at some stage force horses to race on instinct. What Might Bite’s instincts might lead him to do is unknowable. Nicky Henderson has said he has a secret plan to keep Might Bite straight. That final hill has a habit of unravelling the best laid plans.
What Henderson knows for certain is that history awaits if Might Bite does win. No one has ever saddled the Triple Crown of Cheltenham’s greatest prizes in one week. After Buveur D’Air’s Champion Hurdle and Altior and Champion Chase, Henderson has his finest festival moment of all in sight.
If he manages this unprecedented feat he will have to overcome a nine-strong Irish challenge headed by his great friend Jessica Harrington.
Her 2017 champion Sizing John hasn’t made it. But, after winning the Gold Cup with her first runner, Harrington is back with another genuine candidate in Our Duke. Willie Mullins has four runners while Michael O’Leary and JP McManus have two hopefuls each based in Ireland.
It’s Harrington’s single candidate however that seems likely to be the focus of most Irish attention on Friday.
Our Duke’s claims were boosted even further by Presenting Percy’s RSA romp on Wednesday. Beating that outstanding novice over an inadequate trip less than four weeks ago is the sort of form that makes last year’s Irish National hero a leading candidate.
Soft ground isn’t an issue, Sizing John’s defection means jockey Robbie Power maintains the partnership and there’s an apparent momentum behind Our Duke since recovering from a back issue that will make him irresistible to many.
Lurking however is a suspicion about his jumping. He did beat Presenting Percy at Gowran but he also made a mistake at the fourth last that day which would spell disaster around here. That error wasn’t a blip either.
Maybe it’s simply a lack of concentration that leads Our Duke to throw in a mistake. But it’s hard to see him doing it in a Gold Cup and getting away with it.
Sentiment will be behind Djakadam as he tries to emulate The Fellow by twice finishing runner-up, and fourth, before finally landing the Gold Cup. However he seems set for second even in the sentiment stakes behind Edwulf.
Should JP McManus’s runner complete the fairytale comeback from near death here a year ago to winning racing’s greatest prize then even Cheltenham’s reputation for epic storylines will be sealed. That his jockey Derek O’Connor is an amateur taking on the best professionals on the grandest stage will only add to the romance surrounding Edwulf.
Romance isn’t the word that springs to mind about Native River. Even his trainer Colin Tizzard cuts a more west country yeoman figure than some of his colleagues. But the horse is back to try and improve on his third to Sizing John a year ago and conditions look to suit him.
Native River always appeared on the stretch to maintain his pitch in last year’s race. That was on ground a lot faster compared to what he won a Hennessy and Welsh National on earlier that season in a busy campaign.
But he’s got soft conditions now and comes to the Gold Cup off a single impressive warm-up at Newbury last month. Native River isn’t flash. But he jumps, stays and can be relied upon to stick to the task when the going gets tough. And that could well be enough to earn him a place with the greats.