Champion eager to get back on full-flowing River in Gold Cup
Richard Johnson on Monday nominated Native River as the horse he was most looking forward to riding at the Cheltenham Festival after his commanding win at Newbury on Saturday, leaving the champion jockey dreaming of a first Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup success in 17 years.
With Aidan Coleman as understudy after Johnson was taken ill, Native River followed up victories in the Hennessy Gold Cup and Welsh Grand National by adding the Grade 2 Denman Chase to strengthen his position as second favourite for the Gold Cup, for which he is a top-priced 9-2 and main threat to stablemate Thistlecrack.
Johnson, who is set to return to action with one ride at Fontwell on Tuesday, has had few live chances to win the Gold Cup since his only victory on Looks Like Trouble, trained by his now father-in-law Noel Chance, in 2000.
He said: "I always thought Native River was a big player. After Thistlecrack got beat that gave everyone a bit more hope in their own horses. It's just nice to see that after two quite massive handicaps like the Hennessy and the Welsh National he's come out of them really well. For him it was probably an easier race than he's had in his previous two runs and will put him spot on for the Gold Cup.
"I picked up the ride on Looks Like Trouble quite late on in the day. I have one on the board but it would be lovely to have two. He's the one I'm looking forward to probably most of all at Cheltenham now."
Johnson rode in the first two races at Newbury before deciding he could take no further part, despite the lure of the ride on Native River later on the card. He missed the action at Exeter on Sunday as well.
"After riding in the second race I felt horrendous and slightly dizzy and it wouldn't have been fair on the Tizzards or the Brooms to ride Native River or anything else on Saturday," he said. "I don't think I've ever missed rides before from being sick and it's not something I want to do again, especially on a day like that."
Native River had used his abundant stamina in his two previous wins but on Saturday displayed a turn of foot too as he quickened away from the briefly threatening Le Mercurey with Bristol De Mai third.
Johnson added: "I said to Aidan I'd felt the last couple of times I had got after him he had picked up three out then sometimes he just idled a bit on his own. In a small field, where Daryl Jacob [on Bristol De Mai] was probably trying to use him as a lead horse, he would be as well to have a bit of company at the second-last and I think it worked well.
"Le Mercurey went with him until the last and when Aidan's asked him he has gone again. When you ask, he always gives a bit more and there's no better feeling for a jockey when you're riding a horse like that.
"I was lucky enough to get on him last year and he's kept on improving. You're always looking for a horse who's on the upgrade for Cheltenham and that's still what he's doing."
Cue Card ready for Gold Cup prep at Ascot on Saturday
Tizzard's domination of the Gold Cup market is completed by third favourite Cue Card, who the trainer described on Monday as in "lovely form" ahead of his scheduled run in the Grade 1 Betfair Ascot Chase at Ascot on Saturday.
Cue Card won the race in 2013 and Tizzard admitted yesterday it may have been an error not running in the 2m5f feature 12 months ago, when the King's Theatre gelding was instead minded ahead of the Gold Cup and his crack at the £1 million Jockey Club Chase Triple Crown.
"He’s been in lovely form and this is a proper race in its own right," said Tizzard. "We won it a few years ago before he went on to land the Ryanair. I remember looking at it last year and thinking we should have had him in it, so we always planned after the King George to come straight for this. Basically we just want to keep him going and I don’t want him standing around for too long. He doesn’t need three months between races."
Cue Card was taken out of his comfort zone by stablemate Thistlecrack in the 32Red King George VI Chase last time out but Tizzard has been happy with his schooling since.
He said: "He's been brilliant and, while he may not have run his complete race at Kempton, he was still better than the rest of them. He met Thistlecrack on his very best form and there's still a question mark whether this isn’t his best trip."
Whatever the result at Ascot – where Cue Card will face a maximum of six rivals, headed by Kylemore Lough and course specialist Royal Regatta – Tizzard says the book has been closed on the debate over Cue Card's Cheltenham target, which remains the Gold Cup.
He said: "That isn’t why he's going to Ascot. Jean Bishop has always dreamed of winning the Gold Cup with this horse and he missed out last year, so we’ll have another go this year."
Open day to honour Many Clouds
Lambourn's popular Good Friday Open Day has been named in honour of Grand National hero Many Clouds, who died after beating Thistlecrack in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham last month.
Trained in the village by Oliver Sherwood, Many Clouds won the 2014 Hennessy Gold Cup and landed the National the following spring. He was among the star attraction of last year's open day, which takes place on April 14 this year.
Mark Smyly, chairman of the open day, said: "What Many Clouds achieved for Oliver Sherwood was remarkable. He was everything a top chaser should be - a bold, impeccable jumper who stayed forever. The affection with which the team at Rhonehurst held him epitomises why people work in racing.
"The Lambourn Open Day is a day for everyone who works in the village to show off their yards and horses to the public; they are an essential part of Lambourn and the people involved with Many Clouds exemplified that.
"The day raises valuable money for two charities. One of these is the Lambourn Valley Housing Trust, which provides welfare for both our retired and working stable staff, thus naming the day after Many Clouds this year makes perfect sense."