Native River should go down as one of the best staying chasers in modern times. Colin Tizzard has trained a few horses fancied for the Cheltenham Gold Cup – Cue Card and Thistlecrack among them – but it was this one that landed the blue riband event of steeplechasing for him in 2018.
That Native River Gold Cup triumph when making virtually all the running has to go down as one of the most impressive performances in the storied history of the Cheltenham Festival. It is a brave way of racing, because he was there to be shot at throughout. He found more when others couldn’t.
As Native River has never been outside the first four in as many Festival starts over fences, he has also been consistent at Cheltenham over several seasons. When beaten on the big stage, he has lost little in defeat. Let’s not forget about his exploits away from the Cotswolds course either.
A chestnut gelding by Indian River, who had a short-lived chasing career in France, Native River has vastly outstripped his sire. Having won a Listed contest at Exeter over hurdles, it was when he got to tackle fences that he truly shone.
Native River won two Grade 1s as a novice chaser – the Kauto Star at Kempton and Mildmay at Aintree’s Grand National meeting. In-between those efforts, he was a gallant runner-up in the 2016 National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham.
The following season saw Native River plunder valuable staying handicaps in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury and Chepstow’s Welsh Grand National en route to the 2017 Gold Cup. He was fine third there to the then rapidly progressive Sizing John.
With a lighter campaign under his belt, Native River got the big prize 12 months later when trained specifically for Cheltenham Gold Cup glory.
After finishing third, first and fourth previously, punters may be surprised to find Native River Gold Cup odds of 14/1 available with most bookmakers. His price reflects that, although any horse with three placings in as competitive a race as this should be respected, he is older than most of his rivals.
Age catches up with us all. Only two Cheltenham Gold Cup winners in the last 30 years have been 10-year-olds and the last of those was in 1998. In other words, for all his experience, Native River is viewed as vulnerable to younger horses with less mileage on the clock and greater scope for improvement.
Last year’s Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo, the Betway Bowl and Punchestown Festival winner Kemboy, dual King George VI Chase victor Clan Des Obeaux, Savills Chase scorer Delta Work, Betfair Chase first Lostintranslation and the lightly-raced Santini are all shorter in the market for this reason.
Are all of those younger rivals going to flop? Native River needs luck, because time is not on his side. Those chase course form figures of 2314 are encouraging for his supporters, because there is no doubt he acts around the undulations and galloping track of Cheltenham.
You can’t say the same about some of these young pretenders. Clan Des Obeaux and Kemboy haven’t ever won at the course. Native River has a very tough ask nonetheless to turn away so many horses who should still be improving.
What else can you do with a horse like him that has won the Gold Cup, though? Well, also among Native River entries is a possible tilt at the Grand National. He’s won the blue riband steeplechase at Cheltenham, so why not go for the world’s most famous jumps races at Aintree? His stamina is not in doubt.
Native River has had just one run to date this season with a facile 33 lengths success in the Grade 2 Many Clouds Chase at Aintree. His cause was helped that day by old rival Might Bite unseating jockey Nico De Boinville at the fourth fence which rather turned the race into a procession for him.
It’s hard to take that form literally. Prior to that, Native River than a fine fourth when trying to defend the Cheltenham Gold Cup but never really travelling with his usual zest. He was only beaten 9¼ lengths by Al Boum Photo with Anibale Fly and Bristol De Mai splitting him and the winner.
Perhaps Native River’s best performance of last season came in the King George VI Chase around Kempton Park. That flat, tight right-handed track is the polar opposite to Cheltenham with its climb to the finish line and scaling Cleeve Hill in the back straight.
All of Native River’s top form has come on galloping left-handed courses that put the emphasis on stamina rather than speed. He nonetheless placed a solid third out of his comfort zone behind Clan Des Obeaux and beloved stable companion Thistlecrack.
Native River returned to action last season with the aim of completing the Stayers’ Chase Triple Crown. Such grand ambitions – only the legendary Kauto Star has managed it – ended on the first leg, however, when he chased home Haydock Park specialist Bristol De Mai in the Grade 1 Betfair Chase.
He was beaten four lengths by a horse who has made that other Merseyside racing venue his own. Clan Des Obeaux and Thistlecrack were finished behind Native River that day, yet reversed form in the King George. That is no knock on him, but just some proof of the old adage about horses for courses.