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Native River rolls back years for emphatic Cotswold win

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.

Santini had to settle for third but is still on course to bid for the Cheltenham Gold Cup again next month
Santini had to settle for third but is still on course to bid for the Cheltenham Gold Cup again next month (Julian Herbert/PA)

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.”

Bristol De Mai ‘in very good shape’ for Cotswold challenge

Nigel Twiston-Davies does not expect a switch to Sandown to inconvenience Bristol De Mai ahead of the rescheduled Virgin Bet Cotswold Chase.

Following the abandonment of Cheltenham’s Trials Day fixture last weekend, the authorities moved quickly to save this Grade Two contest and recognised Gold Cup trial – and have been rewarded with what promises to be a fascinating affair.

Popular grey Bristol De Mai has been branded as a Haydock specialist over the years, much to the annoyance of his trainer.

And while he only gave that theory more weight in bagging his third Betfair Chase in November, he has run plenty of good races away from Merseyside – including a Grade One success at Sandown in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at this fixture five years ago.

Twiston-Davies said: “It doesn’t matter to Bristol whether he goes left-handed or right-handed, so it’s not a problem.

“It’s five years since he won the Scilly Isles – he’s been going a long time!

“He’s in very good shape and I don’t think the track or the ground will be an issue, so we’re very happy.”

Bristol De Mai is nought from six at Cheltenham, but did finish third in the 2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup and found only subsequent Gold Cup runner-up Santini too strong in last year’s Cotswold Chase.

Connections hope to have a clearer idea as to whether the 10-year-old merits a fourth tilt at Gold Cup glory after this weekend, with the Grand National at Aintree also a major target for the spring.

“Let’s see how we go on Saturday before thinking about anything else,” Twiston-Davies added.

Santini proved his Gold Cup credentials with an ultimately authoritative display in last year’s renewal, before pushing Al Boum Photo all the way in the blue riband.

However, he will line up at Sandown with questions to answer, having failed to recapture his best form in two starts so far this season – most recently finishing fifth in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Santini on his way to winning last year's Cotswold Chase
Santini on his way to winning last year’s Cotswold Chase (David Davies/PA)

Henderson told Unibet: “It’s great that Sandown are able to restage this race because this has been the plan for quite some time and should put him spot on for another crack at the Gold Cup.

“The track is right up his street, I don’t think a slog on heavy ground is really what he’s crying out for but he has to run so we might as well let him take his chance.”

With Champ, Henderson’ other Gold Cup contender, reappearing next weekend at Newbury, Aidan Coleman has been employed.

“Aidan knows Champ from his hurdling days and obviously Nico (de Boinville) knows Santini inside out so it is important that both jockeys are familiar with both horses. We are trying to keep all angles covered with a view to what may or may not happen at Cheltenham,” added Henderson.

Native River bids to bounce back to winning ways
Native River bids to bounce back to winning ways (Steven Paston/PA)

Colin Tizzard’s 2018 Gold Cup hero Native River proved he retains plenty of ability when a close-up third behind Nick Alexander’s Lake View Lad and Santini in the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree in December, when several fences were missed because of low sun.

“Everybody keeps asking me if Sandown will suit him, but I don’t see why not,” said assistant trainer Joe Tizzard.

“The seven fences down the back will really suit his jumping and a nice, stiff finish. In ground conditions like this, it’s tough around Sandown, so I think it will suit him.

“He’s in lovely form and has done nothing wrong for the last two years. He ran a blinder at Aintree and this has always been the plan.

“It’s fantastic they’ve reorganised it from last weekend, as we certainly didn’t want to miss it.”

Lake View Lad gets the opportunity to prove that triumph was no fluke, while Harry Whittington saddles King George fourth Saint Calvados.

The six-strong field is completed by the Paul Nicholls-trained Yala Enki, who steps up in grade after beating If The Cap Fits in a conditions race at Taunton a fortnight ago.

Nicholls said: “He’s astonishing. If you’d seen him work and school earlier this week, you wouldn’t believe it – he’s so enthusiastic.

“He’s ate up everything since he ran and is very fresh. The more it rains ahead of Saturday the more it will suit him.

“I’m not saying he’ll go and win, but if it’s really testing ground and gets really attritional, he’ll run really tidy.”

Bristol De Mai has Cleeve and Cotswold options

Nigel Twiston-Davies has given Bristol De Mai entries in both the rescheduled Cotswold Chase and Cleeve Hurdle, because of uncertainties over the wintry weather this week.

Bristol De Mai is one of six possibles for the Cotswold at Sandown and one of 17 in the Cleeve at Wetherby – with both races switched to this Saturday, after Cheltenham’s Festival Trials card was abandoned last weekend.

Twiston-Davies is leaning towards the Cotswold but felt it wise to put him in the Cleeve as well during such a volatile spell of weather.

“Let’s see what the weather does. We’ve no idea yet,” said the Naunton trainer.

“We’d probably prefer to go for the Cotswold if it was on, but I’ll have to speak to the owners first, so I haven’t a clue at the moment.”

Santini is among six entries for the rescheduled Cotswold Chase at Sandown on Saturday
Santini is among six entries for the rescheduled Cotswold Chase at Sandown on Saturday (David Davies/PA)

The five other Cotswold entries are Lake View Lad, Native River, Saint Calvados, Santini and Yala Enki.

The Cotswold Chase is one of eight races on Sandown’s card, with officials still hoping to stage the meeting as scheduled after the hurdles course just passed an inspection on Tuesday.

However, it is still possible the hurdle races could be lost and replaced with more steeplechase contests.

Clerk of the course Andrew Cooper said: “It would be absolute borderline you could race here this afternoon – and we’re obliged, quite rightly, not to give up on it just yet.

“With an unsettled outlook with spells of rain – we’re expecting one Wednesday morning and showery thereafter – there will be another inspection at some point to decide where we go for Saturday.

“The absolute deadline to make it an all-chase card would be declarations morning on Thursday. If the weather intervenes significantly in the interim, that decision would be brought forward.

“We just felt, given the importance and value of the hurdles race on Saturday, it would be premature to give up on the hurdle races just yet.”

A final decision on the make-up of the fixture will be taken following an inspection at 8am on Thursday. The British Horseracing Authority has made a contingency to add two further chases to make an all-chase six-race card.

A favourable forecast over the next few days gives Wetherby clerk of the the course Jonjo Sanderson every hope the meeting there will go ahead.

Wetherby are optimistic of racing taking place on Saturday (
Wetherby are optimistic of racing taking place on Saturday (Mike Egerton/PA)

“We had a covering of snow overnight, but it turned to drizzle and is thawing away,” he said.

“The temperatures are supposed to rise to eight or nine degrees tomorrow, Thursday and Friday.

“We were absolutely fine on Monday and were back to a point where we were raceable after the waterlogging last week.

“All being well, the fact we’ve got three good days, plus Saturday, for this to drain through, we should be OK. The ground will be heavy all round, I should think.”

With Paisley Park an absentee, as expected, from the rescheduled Cleeve Hurdle, the Grade Two contest has a much more open look.

Lake View Lad could run at either Sandown or Wetherby
Lake View Lad could run at either Sandown or Wetherby (Richard Sellers/PA)

“Paisley Park would have put a few off at Cheltenham, and the fact Emma Lavelle has said she is not coming to Wetherby has opened the race up a bit more to make it a bit more attractive,” Sanderson added.

“We’re delighted to run the race, so it’s not lost. William Hill have stepped in and have added to their package. We’re grateful for their support of the race.”

Like Bristol De Mai, Nick Alexander’s Lake View Lad has an entry in the two races.

Among others in the Cleeve are Ballyoptic, Itchy Feet, Main Fact, On The Blind Side, Ramses De Teillee and Yorkhill.

Sandown team considering all-chase option for Saturday card

Officials at Sandown are pursuing the possibility of staging an all-chase chase card on Saturday should the hurdle track remain unraceable.

The next 24 hours could be crucial as to what form the programme will take, with more rain forecast at the Esher venue.

As a consequence, an inspection has been called for midday on Tuesday with particular emphasis on the hurdles course.

There are currently set to be eight races on the card – four over hurdles and four over fences, following confirmation the Cotswold Chase is to be moved after Cheltenham was abandoned at the weekend.

Before that announcement from the British Horseracing Authority, Sandown clerk of the course Andrew Cooper said: “The entries closed at midday today on the basis of a seven-race card, including hurdle races.

“Our view is, as it stands, we’d be raceable over fences but not raceable over hurdles.

“We’ve got a week with potentially a couple of spells of rain, which could be appreciable overnight tonight and throughout the course of Wednesday in particular. There is rain certainly in the first half of the week.

“We’re giving some thought to the possibility of going all steeplechase if that seems to be the best way to go to make sure we race in some shape or form on Saturday.

“If we didn’t look at that and stuck to the conventional chase-hurdle card we could come to a point with the latter that we might lose everything later in the week, so we have to develop a contingency option. I think there will be quite a lot happening over the next 24 hours.

“There’s a lot to run its course, and we’d hopeful of getting some racing here on Saturday, but quite what format that meeting would take remains to be seen.

“The Cotswold Chase has been kicked around as a possible race to be rescheduled here from Cheltenham. With the Cotswold, we’d be up to eight races. It is volatile at the moment, and there is a lot of weather to come through.”

The going is described as soft, heavy in places on the chase course but raceable – and heavy, soft in places on the hurdles course with some waterlogging/saturation on the home straight.

The BHA confirmed on Monday afternoon that the Cotswold Chase will be run at Sandown, while the same day’s Wetherby card will feature the Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle – which was also initially due to be run at Cheltenham.

The Virgin Bet Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase is set to be Sandown’s Grade One feature, with Dan Skelton’s Kauto Star Novices’ Chase winner Shan Blue going for a second top-level strike.

He is unbeaten in three starts over fences – while Alan King’s Messire Des Obeaux has won both his chases this season, having also scored at Grade One level over hurdles before injury intervened in his career.

Dame De Compagnie, Allart, Hitman and Sporting John also figure among 10 contenders.