Native River put himself back in the reckoning to regain his Cheltenham Gold Cup title with an authoritative victory in the Virgin Bet Cotswold Chase at Sandown Park
Rescheduled following the abandonment of Cheltenham’s Trials Day last weekend, this three-mile Grade Two is a recognised Gold Cup trial – although the last to win both races in the same season was Looks Like Trouble in 2000.
This time, it was run in desperately testing conditions – much to the liking of Colin Tizzard’s 2018 Gold Cup hero, who put in a typically assured round of jumping and raced prominently throughout under Richard Johnson to win at 13-2, by nine and a half lengths from Bristol De Mai.
Native River led at the first of the Railway fences on the final circuit – but Bristol De Mai, sent off as 9-4 favourite, was far from done with yet.
Tizzard’s 11-year-old, a close-up third to Lake View Lad in the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree when last seen in December, had helped to set a relentless gallop and had a length to spare at the Pond Fence as the mud-loving Yala Enki began to tire.
Bristol De Mai, regarded by some as a Haydock specialist – much to the annoyance of his trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies – loomed large turning in.
But a fine leap at the last saw Native River stride clear, and he went further away up the hill to score with plenty to spare.
Santini stuck to the task, but was a further seven and a half lengths back in third.
Native River’s 14th career success confirmed a return to form for the Tizzard yard – out of sorts for much of the season, but back with a winner at Wincanton on Thursday.
Johnson said: “He’s a good boy, and he suits me. He felt really well, and felt really well at Aintree. The one thing he loves is his jumping.
“A hard slog around here is right up his street. He hasn’t lost any of his enthusiasm, that’s for sure.
“He jumped the Railway fences really well and again got into a nice rhythm – and we know he stays really well and he handles the conditions. It was a fantastic effort.”
Assistant trainer Joe Tizzard said: “He’s as tough as they come and he’s never lost his enthusiasm.
“He had really come to himself the last couple of weeks – and as he has got older, he has perhaps lost half a gear, so the ground probably helps him.
“He’s won a Welsh National and stays particularly strongly, so when he gets his conditions he takes a bit of pegging back.”
Native River has run just seven times since his Gold Cup win, but has remained very consistent at the highest level nonetheless.
“This means a lot,” Tizzard added.
“He’s our main flag-bearer and he’s done nothing wrong in the last five years – he just keeps producing.
“He is a lovely chap in the stable, and the Gold Cup has always been the plan. This was the prep run for it.”
Santini, winner of this race last year and then runner-up in the Gold Cup, was beaten in his first two runs this season – including when fifth in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
He finished adrift here too, but trainer Nicky Henderson nonetheless remains optimistic he will line up in again in the Gold Cup.
He said: “We ummed and ahhed about going to run at Cheltenham (last weekend) before it was called off.
“But you have to ensure you get a run into them. We wanted to get a run into (Champion Hurdle hope) Buveur D’Air (before his defeat) at Haydock – because now all his possible alternatives have gone, like the (abandoned) Contenders Hurdle, which is what I was waiting for.
“(But) at least if you are going to run in unsuitable conditions, and you are going to get harder races than you would have liked, the more time you give yourself between now and then (Cheltenham), the better things will be.
“That horse (Santini) will take anything.
“From the second-last, Aidan (Coleman) wasn’t going to get to the front and he wasn’t going to get caught from behind, so the good thing was he was allowed to come home in his own time.
“I’d be happy. He made one mistake, when he just didn’t come out of the ground.
“I’m pleased we’ve done it, now it is over. He will just go to the Gold Cup. He loves Cheltenham – it is what he has been aimed at all year.”