RIVER RUNS RIVALS RAGGED IN THRILLING GOLD CUP
Richard Johnson registered his second success in the G1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup following the Colin Tizzard-trained Native River's (5/1) scintillating front-running victory in the extended three-mile and two furlong event.
The eight-year-old son of Indian River jumped with aplomb throughout National Hunt racing's Blue Riband and following a fine leap at the last, Native River kept on tenaciously up the punishing Cheltenham hill to score by four and a half-lengths from Nicky Henderson's Might Bite, the 4/1 favourite in second.
Johnson, winning the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup 18 years after Looks Like Trouble's victory in the race paid tribute to Native River's temperament and tenacity.
Britain's champion Jump jockey said: "Native River had a hard year last season, but this time around, he was a much fresher horse as he didn't have the Ladbrokes Trophy and the Welsh National behind him.
"I felt that if he produced last year's form (finished 3rd in the 2017 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup) that would give him a great chance and I think he probably did.
"Colin and Joe were happy with him over the last 10 days and that was all I needed to know. He's such a straightforward horse and he is only eight - there is every chance he could improve again.
"At Newbury last time, we had a nice spin round really and he showed all the right signs. He didn't have a hard race at Newbury and I thought it was a perfect preparation. I felt as long as he reproduced the form we knew he was capable of then he had a good chance in the Gold Cup.
"At four out, I thought I needed to get the race going forward. I didn't want to go on my own, but at the same time, I didn't want to hack down the hill. He was a bit long at four out which is a tricky fence, but he just seems to land so well and he gets away from his fences brilliantly.
"He's developed into a strong horse who benefitted from the time off. With him only being eight, there is more to come - the more you ask him, the more he gives. If he's long, he's brilliant, if he's short, he's brilliant.
"He was superb at the last two fences. I kept asking him and he kept finding. The Gold Cup is all about having a classy and brave horse.
"I felt his Welsh National performance as a six-year-old was a sensational performance off top-weight, but today the more I asked, the more he gave once again. He doesn't have the usual profile of a Gold Cup winner but he has kept going on an upward curve."
Johnson, registering his 23rd victory at The Festival and first of 2018, continued: "18 years ago, I didn't realise how hard it was to win a Gold Cup. To finish third in the race last year was brilliant and I thought he would come back and be even better this time around and it's amazing. It's so hard to get a horse to a Festival, let alone a Gold Cup - it's a fantastic race.
"That ground hasn't been raced on since this time last year, so compared to the other course and especially the hurdle course, it was very different conditions with fresh ground. I thought we got quite an easy lead and I wasn't at full stretch when making the running. We travelled really well and settled into a nice jumping rhythm. He doesn't waste a lot of energy in front which is so important in a Gold Cup.
"When you're young, you think these big victories come so easy, but you don't actually realise how hard it is to at least ride a horse with a chance in these big races, let alone win it.
"I'm very lucky to ride the horse and I've had three very quiet days at The Festival so far, but this has then finished my week in style."
RIVER TURNS THE TIDE FOR TIZZARD
The Colin Tizzard-trained Native River (5/1) produced a marvellous front-running performance under Richard Johnson to claim National Hunt racing's Blue Riband event, the G1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Third in the race last year, Native River led throughout the three-mile and two furlong chase, producing a string of fine leaps to maintain his advantage.
Following a superb jump at the final fence, the eight-year-old son of Indian River responded willingly to Johnson's urgings to score by four and a half-lengths from Nicky Henderson's Might Bite, the 4/1 favourite in second. Johnson was subsequently suspended for seven days and fined £6,550 for using his whip above the permitted level from approaching the second last fence.
Tizzard, registering a 203/1 double following Kilbricken Storm's 33/1 success in the G1 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle earlier on the card, was also landing his seventh winner at The Festival overall.
He said: "The Gold Cup is everything and the fact that we've won it is unreal. With horses, you're never so far away from having a good one as you may think. Up until last night, we had not been that competitive and at the sales last night, everything was buying ones that we couldn't afford, then we won the two races today! It's a fantastic way to spend your life. Our horses went out of form at Christmas which coincided with the flu injections, so we eased off with them a bit and that may have helped them going into the spring campaign. You might not always plan these things, but now they're fresh again and running well.
"This has been the plan for Native River since last year's Gold Cup when he picked up the ligament problem. He couldn't run till at least Christmas and me and Garth talked about and Ann decided that he would run at Newbury and then the Gold Cup! We haven't talked about the future plans. This was the plan and we don't need to say about it yet. I don't whether we would want to run him again.
"Garth and Ann Broom [owners, Brocade Racing] have been big supporters of our yard, so it's great to provide them with a winner in the Gold Cup. To win a Gold Cup is so special. I came here as a 17-year-old farmer who stood in the hut by the last fence never thinking I would have a runner or even be a trainer. Garth and Ann are behind everything I say but Garth did not want to go to the Welsh Grand National last year in case the ground was heavy, but actually the ground was not so heavy as we thought - it wasn't even as heavy as it was today!"
Assistant trainer Joe Tizzard commented: "We haven't had a pretty quiet week, with some horses finishing placed, but this was our best chance of the week. To go and win the Gold Cup is something special. We were forced into having just the one run at Newbury this season because in last year's Gold Cup, he had a slight ligament problem, but he was back in the yard at August and that had always been the plan to run at Newbury and then come here. It's not very often that you have a perfect eight-month preparation. His Newbury run was perfect and he cantered well this week. We watched him yesterday canter up our gallops to make sure he didn't take a lame step or something, but it has all gone completely to plan. He was ready to run in December and it was not like us to be patient as we quite like running them, but it looks a good idea now."
Winning owner Garth Broom said: "I thought I was dreaming. We achieved a lifetime ambition, which doesn't always happen. I'm slightly in shock. Native River and Richard Johnson are made for each other. I thought he looked a stronger horse after Newbury. With the time off, I think he grew into himself more. I'm not too fussed with running him again - I'm happy with what we've achieved this season.
Garth's wife Ann added: "I thought it was a really good race and I wasn't sure if he could do it. I was hoping he could be in the first four, but I didn't really imagine him winning!"
Native River is 6/1 with BetVictor and 7/1 with Betway and Paddy Power for the 2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup.