Richard Johnson’s outstanding front-running ride on Native River was rewarded with a second Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup for the English jockey, 18 years after his first victory on Looks Like Trouble in 2000.
Johnson, who is the current British champion jockey, and the Colin Tizzard-trained Native River were stalked for the entire race by Nicky Henderson’s 4/1 favourite Might Bite and Nico de Boinville. Johnson sent eight-year-old Native River clear after the final fence, however, and drew away to win by four and a half lengths at 5/1.
Discussing his second victory in National Hunt racing’s premier event, Johnson said:
“It’s been a long 18 years! To be honest, I was a passenger. He’s a fantastic horse to ride. He loves jumping and almost waits for things in front and just does what he has to. I thought we had gone quite steady but sometimes when you are on a good horse it doesn’t feel that quick, and I thought I needed to move it on a gear down the back straight and the more I asked from him, the better he jumped.
“From four out onwards he just kept picking up. I could see Might Bite next to me and going to two fences out he looked to be travelling quite well, but I knew Native River is a stayer and I felt we had to try to give him as much to do as possible. He answered every call and at the last he was very brave. Up the run-in he just kept going. It was very testing conditions out there – I’m not sure we will see them as testing again, but he’s a warrior and it’s a pleasure to ride him.
“I don’t think Might Bite ever headed us but I could tell he was going nicely and that Nico was not wanting to commit and go on, but I think he was thinking I was going to lead him. Might Bite’s run a fantastic race and on a different track on a different day in different conditions the result might have been different, but everything was in our favour. Native River has got a massive heart and just kept finding.
“The owners [Brocade Racing] are fantastic. They love their horses and whatever Colin Tizzard said [in terms of preparation] they would have gone along with. Last year he had a fantastic season but a very busy one, and they felt this year this race was the one to come for and it just fitted well really; the King George wasn’t going to be ideal for him and the Newbury race was perfect. Even if he only runs twice this year, he doesn’t owe us much now!
“For me the Gold Cup is the most important race of the year. I know for some people the Grand National is the ‘people’s race’, but this is the best of the best. It’s everyone’s dream to own a Gold Cup horse and to ride one is brilliant; to win it now twice is fantastic. The championship has always been my main target but when you can have one or two of these along the way, they are very special.
“It is always down to the horse. If you are on the right horse and get into the right rhythm, it makes riding from the front almost easier as there is nothing to get in your way. Very few horses are as straightforward as he is, or as brave; I am very lucky to have got the ride and we’ve had some great days over the past couple of years. He’s only eight years old and hopefully there are many more to come.”