Our antepost expert Matt Brocklebank kicks off his long-range previews for the 2020 Cheltenham Festival with tips for the Gold Cup and Ryanair Chase.
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NATIVE RIVER (20/1 General) looks capable of one last hurrah in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and if conditions were to come in his favour then he’ll be a massive player once again on March 13.
The 2018 winner – when he effectively broke a fractionally flawed Might Bite – had a quieter season last time around but he hardly ran a bad race, finishing second to Bristol De Mai in the Betfair Chase, third to Clan Des Obeaux in the King George and fourth (the only time he’s been out of the first three from 17 career starts over fences) behind Al Boum Photo when an unusually slow start seemed to cost him dear back at Cheltenham.
It was briefly hinted after last year's Gold Cup that a change of headgear would be considered and the switch from cheekpieces to blinkers saw him run out an easy winner on his comeback in the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree in December.
The race – already weak to begin with - fell apart somewhat and there's no way we can categorically conclude that Native River is back to his very best in spite of the 33-length winning margin.
But that kind of bloodless victory might just rekindle something in the chestnut and I’d rate him the one to beat in Newbury’s upcoming Betfair Denman Chase, a race he won in 2017 en route to finishing third in Sizing John’s Gold Cup, and again in 2018 before he took top spot at the Festival.
Stablemate Lostintranslation will reportedly sidestep Newbury following a breathing operation and the main threat at Newbury is likely to be posed by Nicky Henderson’s Santini, who seems to divide option but is still half the price of Native River for the Gold Cup.
Victory for Colin Tizzard’s now 10-year-old would presumably see the two horses trade places in the market and, given the young pretenders have yet to really stamp their authority when it comes to this season’s Friday feature, there’s plenty to like about getting an experienced, hard chaser like Native River on side nice and early.
At the current prices, and with every chance of a wet week come the middle of March, the champion jockey’s mount is well worth backing ahead of the final preps.
Whereas we know that Native River loves Cheltenham and clearly has the minerals for a gruelling Gold Cup battle, that’s not yet the case with Kemboy, who I’m convinced will win more major races somewhere along the line this season.
He can get a little keen in the early stages of his races, though, and that was in evidence again when fourth behind Delta Work, Monalee and Road To Respect in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown - he won't get away with it at Cheltenham.
Ruby Walsh made it look easy on Willie Mullins’ youngster at Aintree and Punchestown last spring but he’s perhaps not the easiest to get hold of and, while he’s probably the real emerging star of the division, I can resist him at 7/1 to give probable rider Danny Mullins his first ever Festival winner.
One place further back in fifth, Presenting Percy's run caught the eye and at 14/1 with Sky Bet, it’s not hard to see last year’s Gold Cup favourite being popular in the build-up. He had a pretty terrible preparation last season and could yet prove himself at the very top as trainer Pat Kelly evidently works back from Cheltenham.
You only have to revisit the 2018 RSA Chase to see what Presenting Percy is capable of around Prestbury Park and he appeals more at the current prices than title-holder Al Boum Photo, who is trying to plot an identical path to the last campaign with a cosy comeback win at Tramore.
The danger of him arriving a bit flat after just the one run again is enough to put me off.
Delta Work did extremely well to win the Savills from an unpromising position and he looks ideally suited to the relatively sharp nature of Leopardstown. He won the Pertemps Final a couple of years ago but was clearly very well handicapped (139) that day and it could be that Cheltenham isn't absolutely his ideal track, something that appears to be the case for Clan Des Obeaux as well.
A runaway winner of the King George for the second year in succession, Paul Nicholls' contender would traditionally be very short for the Gold Cup in light of such a devastating victory in the Christmas highlight, but I'd be inclined to agree with the market, where he's as big as 8/1 with a couple of firms.
There are two at massive prices out of left field that deserve a mention and they are major handicap winners Chris’s Dream (40/1) and De Rasher Counter (66/1).
Ladbrokes Trophy winner De Rasher Counter looks set for the Cotswolds Chase on Trials day where he could put himself onto the periphery of a Gold Cup with a prominent showing, while Henry De Bromhead’s Chris’s Dream might be more of a Grand National candidate.
He was raised to a mark of 159 after hacking up in the Troytown at Navan and has been forced, according to his trainer, to head down the Irish Gold Cup route. It will be noteworthy how he gets on back in Grade One company having fluffed his lines when asked to step up as a novice.
The likely field for the Ryanair Chase looks a far muddier picture at this point compared to the big one.
However, there isn't much of a crossover between the two races, with the top of the Ryanair betting dominated by horses arguably more likely to tackle the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Defi Du Seuil looked made for the Ryanair when scampering home in the Shloer at the start of the season but his subsequent Tingle Creek victory may tempt connections into thinking he's a bona fide two-mile chaser.
I have my doubts, but there's no real temptation to get stuck into him at 6/1 for the Ryanair in the hope that he rocks up here instead, especially with the Clarence House Chase at Ascot his confirmed next race.
The same approach applies to A Plus Tard at the moment, although it's slightly more likely he lines up for this than Defi Du Seuil, even more so if the Henry De Bromhead representative can't repeat his festive win over Chacun Pour Soi at the Dublin Racing Festival next month.
Min - 7/1 at the time of writing but as short as 5s in a few places - could easily end up favourite if building on his John Durkan comeback success with another victory ahead of Cheltenham.
He's a genuine 170 horse at his best but he flopped in last year's Champion Chase, prior to which his Festival record consisted of two very respectable seconds to Altior.
He looks in need of this intermediate trip these days and just about sets the bar along with 12-year-old stablemate Un De Sceaux, who put up another remarkable performance in the Tingle Creek and wasn't totally disgraced when fifth to Frodon in last year's Ryanair.
Footpad was favourite that day and he's looked on the comeback trail this season, travelling well for a long way when ultimately a well-held third in the King George last month.
There are still question marks surrounding him, likewise the participation of Kempton runner-up Cyrname who will probably return for another crack at the Grade One Ascot Chase next month ahead of the spring.
He might face RIDERS ONTHE STORM at Ascot and it will be a fascinating clash should it materialise, with Nigel Twiston-Davies' recruit the one on a steep upward curve in this division.
The ex-Irish seven-year-old looked miles ahead of the handicapper when winning at Aintree in November and was even more impressive when tanking his way to victory in a graduation chase at Ascot last month.
That performance smacked of a horse with Grade One potential and while he's still got a bit of ground to make up having been raised to a mark of 162, it's hard to say just where the ceiling of his ability lies.
Rider Onthe Storm fell after being too keen early on in last year's Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase at the Festival but has clearly turned over a new leaf this time around in his new surroundings and he's one to support now while the 14/1 (Sky Bet, bet365) is still available.
Posted at 1430 GMT on 08/01/19