Native River cut as hopes fade for Coneygree challenge
Coneygree's hopes of regaining the Cheltenham Gold Cup crown he was unable to defend last year were all but extinguished on Monday, when connections revealed they would not even enter their heavyweight champion for the Timico-sponsored showpiece.
On the same day, in a major overhaul of the market for the festival showpiece, Colin Tizzard's Hennessy Gold Cup and Welsh Grand National winner Native River was cut to general 6-1 second-favourite (from 8) behind brilliant stablemate Thistlecrack.
Coneygree, who became the first novice since Captain Christy in 1974 to win the Gold Cup when triumphing under Nico de Boinville in 2015, missed last season's race through injury and his ill fortune has continued this term, but trainer Mark Bradstock's wife and assistant Sara hopes their stable star will still be able to run this spring, and connections are eyeing targets at Aintree or Punchestown.
Bradstock said: "He's not quite where we want him and we're not going to put him in the Gold Cup. If everything changed and suddenly everything looked perfect, his x-rays and him, we could supplement. But we're not going to enter him because I'm 90 per cent certain he won't run.
"It's just going to come too quick and we're not going to be there in top form. We'll hold our horses and wait and he'll definitely have some spring targets. He'll definitely go to Aintree or Punchestown unless something else goes wrong. We just need to do this right."
Coneygree’s defection is thought to be the chief reason for Native River, hero of the Hennessy Gold Cup and Coral Welsh National, being cut across the board.
"It's linked to the Coneygree news, but what's weird is that there's been no kind of variety for anything else. There have been bits for Native River's stablemate Alary, this French dark horse, and he's 25-1 from 33-1, but the serious money was for Native River.
"It's a market reaction to Coneygree and people focusing on two horses where there might be a semblance of value left."
Coneygree, owned by the Max Partnership, returned from more than a year off to finish second to Cue Card in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November, but has not been right since.
Bradstock, rueing the dry autumn that preceded that outing, said: "I know his every step and I know when he's right and when he's not. He's quite interesting in that you can tell when he's done himself some damage – and there's no fracture like last season - but you can just tell with him, and if there's something he needs to worry about he'll tell you.
"The problem probably began at Haydock, but didn't appear until a couple of weeks after and he's got a little niggle in the bone under his knee; where the cannonbone meets the knee.
"He's just feeling it and we've got to know he's absolutely perfect before we crack on. He is what he is and is wonderfully talented, but he has these spider-long legs and they're fragile."
Bradstock also confirmed the Randox Health Grand National would not be on Coneygree's agenda either, with the Bowl the more likely Aintree aim.
"The only chance of him running in a Grand National is when we don't think there are any more good park races in him," she said.
"He's far too clever for that and doesn't like any change in what he jumps, and if we were going to run him in the National we'd have to school him over the fences and I think he'd never come back to jumping the park fences as well.
"I honestly believe he's as good as he ever was. He may be getting on in years, but there are no miles on the clock and he doesn't feel like he's any less enthusiastic or able; it's just his limbs that let him down.
"Hopefully he can show he's still a top horse this spring, and maybe we'll go and show the Irish who's boss!"
If the Bradstocks are in need of a boost they may get it from Coneygree's younger half-brother Flintham, who is pencilled in for a Listed novice chase at Warwick on Saturday.
"He was absolutely flying last week, but then Lingfield got called off," Bradstock said. "So that was infuriating and he may run on Saturday. It's far from ideal running straight in a Listed race, but we may have to do it.
"He was ready to go and win last week and is dying for a run; he's been schooling really well and hopefully he can improve over fences like the others have."
As well as Coneygree, the 'others' include sibling and 2011 Hennessy winner Carruthers, now 14 but still going strong.
Bradstock said: "He's in just as good form and was fourth, beaten just four and three-quarter lengths, in a point-to-point at Chaddesley Corbett over Christmas.
"The old fella is in flying form and there's a hunter chase at Ffos Las, which was always his favourite track, coming up in a few weeks."