Champion Johnson convinced River has class to strike in Gold Cup
Richard Johnson believes he has a great chance of bridging the 17-year gap since Looks Like Trouble by winning the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup on Native River, who enjoyed the ideal prep at Newbury last month.
The clash between Native River and Colin Tizzard-trained stablemate Cue Card, amid a horde of Irish raiders, will provide the icing on the cake of jump racing's showcase festival.
Johnson, who will be heading to Cheltenham as champion jockey for the first time but will approach the meeting no differently, stood himself down from the Denman Chase ride through illness but was nevertheless instrumental in the seven-year-old's success at Newbury, having talked over tactics with his replacement Aidan Coleman.
He said: "A lot of people had him down as just a stayer, but he's got class and he's not a one-dimensional horse who can only win by breaking everyone else's hearts. He does stay, and he can make the running, but he doesn't have to lead.
"I've learned through riding him that he enjoys the company of other horses, so you can ride the race to suit him and not necessarily give everything else a lead.
He continued: "For me the Gold Cup is the most important race of the season. There are lots of other good races, but when you talk about chasing's legends it's the great Gold Cup winners like Arkle and Kauto Star who first come to mind.
"I've been lucky to win the race once already and I think I've got a very strong chance of doing it again. I wouldn't swap him and I'm very excited."
There is precious little between Cue Card, who is best at 7-2, Native River (4-1) and Ireland's principal hope Djakadam (4-1), at the head of the Gold Cup market.
In the absence of the injured Barry Geraghty, Johnson has another major Grade 1 chance in the JCB Triumph Hurdle on Defi Du Seuil.
Trainer Philip Hobbs has confirmed the horse will not figure among the acceptors for Tuesday's Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, for which on Tuesday night he was no bigger than 8-1 with those offering non-runner no-bet terms.
Johnson said: "It's rotten luck on Barry, who had such a great book to look forward to, but I think I ride Defi Du Seuil in the Triumph and I'll make the most of it.
"I've already won twice on him, but I'd never have thought when he won at Ffos Las the first time that he was a Triumph horse. He's an improver who takes it all very well and is thriving on his racing, and you couldn't say where he might end up.
"On form, he warrants being a strong favourite. He's easily best of the British runners, and it will take something pretty special from Ireland to beat him."
Hobbs has a smaller team than usual but Johnson is also looking forward to riding Village Vic in either the Plate or the Ryanair and points out that while his mount will need a career-best in either, he loves Cheltenham and is fresher than a year ago, when he started the season earlier and arrived at the festival past his best.
Johnson, who has 20 festival winners but has drawn a blank for the past two meetings, added: "It will be no different for me going there as champion jockey.
'It gets tougher every year'
"I'll just go there hoping they all run to their best, and if they do I have some very good chances. But it's always tough to ride winners there, and it gets tougher every year as the quality gets better and better."
In other festival news, while Neon Wolf, unlike Defi Du Seuil, will figure among the acceptors for the Supreme, he is no more likely than he was a week ago to take his chance in that race rather than the Neptune, despite support into 7-2 favouritism in some lists.
Trainer Harry Fry is eyeing the weather and keeping options open for the unbeaten Haydock Grade 2 winner until forced to commit, but with so many bookmakers now offering non-runner no-bet terms the support for the long-time leading Neptune fancy in the Supreme is understandable.
Fry, whose Unowhatimeanharry will be a banker for many in the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle, expects his team to be "whittled down to seven or eight, max".
He said: "We'll have Neon Wolf and 'Harry', plus American in the RSA and hopefully Henryville and Voix D'Eeau in the Plate, Any Drama in the Albert Bartlett, and Air Horse One in the County Hurdle rather than carrying top weight on Saturday in the Imperial Cup."
He added: "Behind Time looks very unlikely to get in the handicap hurdles."