Coleman strikes on Native River
Aidan Coleman stepped in for the winning mount on Native River in the Denman Chase as the leading Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup hope made all to beat Le Mercurey.
Aidan Coleman and Native River clear the water jump on their way to winning the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury.
With Richard Johnson crying off with the effects of 'flu, trainer Colin Tizzard was forced into a late jockey change aboard the 11/10 chance.
Native River was not always perfect at his fences, but raced with his usual enthusiasm against rivals Le Mercurey and Bristol De Mai, the latter sent off favourite to build upon his previous success in the Peter Marsh Chase.
But despite the three runners turning for home with only a couple of lengths between them, it was Native River who kept finding for Coleman's urgings. Le Mercurey looked his biggest danger on touching down over the final fence, but the winner picked up again and edged on to score by three and a quarter lengths.
Coleman said: "I talked to Dickie and he told me what his plan was going to be and what I needed to do and that made things easy.
"Things can get a bit tactical in a three-runner race like that but it always helps when you're on the best horse and he did everything I asked him to do."
Tizzard added: "I only think he asked him coming down to the second last. He just nursed him along. It showed he was a bit classier.
"In his last two races he went a few lengths clear four out and just held on. We wanted to ride him a little differently and have that finishing spurt at the end and it's worked brilliantly. He's gone away at the line. Aidan's not a bad sub!"
Of his three most obvious Gold Cup contenders – Native River, Thistlecrack and Cue Card – Tizzard said: "They are all lovely horses. I'm just so proud to have them in our yard.
"A three-horse race today, I thought we might get outmanoeuvred, but no, he's got a bit more class and is just a thorough stayer and he's got a bit of pace as well."
Tizzard went on: "It's just nice that Richard Johnson and Aidan Coleman were talking beforehand how to ride him.
"Aidan Coleman is a classy jockey. He has not had these colours on a for a few years since he decked Hey Big Spender in the Hennessy.
"I walked out with Dickie and he said he would love to ride him but just felt he couldn't do the horse justice. He had this flu and he felt terrible.
"It was a brilliant performance. He is not just an out and out stayer, he has got a bit of pace about him.
"We've ridden him to outstay people and we don't have to go on over five out. It is lovely to see he has got that other gear now.
"When it is cat and mouse, you think 'is that gear there at the end of the race' and there it is."
Paul Nicholls said of runner-up Le Mercurey: "When he ran up against Many Clouds, Sean Bowen said if we took him on early we would have got a bit closer. That form was a good run.
"He came into the race with 1lb difference and to get as close to the horse I think will win the Gold Cup is a good run.
"He is an improving young horse. He is better on a flat track and he will be aimed at the Betfred Bowl. Sam Twiston-Davies said he will be a National horse one day.
"He is better off in small fields. We will try to keep him fresh and well for Aintree and let the others get stuck in at Cheltenham."