Native and Bristol clash in Denman
Views from connections ahead of the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury on Saturday.
Native River faces two rivals
Native River puts his Cheltenham Gold Cup credentials on the line as he clashes with Bristol De Mai in the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury.
Winner of the Hennessy and Welsh National already this term, the Colin Tizzard-trained Native River faces a genuine challenger in Bristol De Mai, who booked his place in the race with victory in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock last month.
Champion jockey Richard Johnson has struck up a tremendous understanding with Native River having only tasted defeat once in four races, and that was over hurdles on his seasonal return at Wetherby.
Their respective styles seem a match made in heaven, with the aggressive Johnson usually pouring it on from the front on Native River.
"I'm delighted to be getting back on board him. The Hennessy and the Welsh National were two fantastic runs and hopefully he can put up another great performance. On those two runs, he is the one they have got to beat," said Johnson.
"They were both very good wins, but carrying top weight in the Welsh National – as a weight-carrying performance that's got to be right up there, I would have thought.
"He was the class horse in the race and he had that bit of class when they turned in. He did seem to find a bit more, when most horses would just keep going at the one pace.
"He is very straightforward. He stays and jumps and does what it says on the tin. He has got a very good attitude and he keeps giving. He looks like a horse that is progressing and that is important at this time of year.
"Bristol De Mai was very impressive at Haydock and there is very little between them on handicap ratings."
Connections of Bristol De Mai are hoping they will have too much speed for Native River, who has been running over further.
Bristol De Mai landed his first win over three miles in the Peter Marsh, form which has subsequently been boosted by the runner-up Otago Trail.
"With Native River we are guaranteed a proper test and I'm looking forward to it," Twiston-Davies told At The Races.
"Over the three miles, I hope we'll be too speedy for him, but time will tell.
"He answered questions at Haydock and the way the second horse won last weekend bolstered the form enormously.
"He's always been speedy and in his early days he didn't settle, which was why we ran him over two miles. Now he settles, he's proved he's a three-miler.
"This race is the perfect gap until Cheltenham and the Gold Cup is very much the plan. Things can change, obviously, but at the moment it's the Gold Cup.
"Everything is coming right for him, we've discovered his distance and he settles more. With Thistlecrack getting beaten, it opens things up a bit more in the Gold Cup."
Bristol De Mai's jockey Daryl Jacob was not surprised by the ease of his Haydock victory and had been expecting it earlier in the season.
"It was a very good performance at Haydock and going into the race I was expecting it, as I was actually disappointed he didn't do something similar at Newcastle, if I'm honest," he told Racing UK.
"We tweaked a few little things and changed a few things, but it was a good performance whichever way you look at it.
"There were some really good handicappers behind him and then Otago Trail came out and won at Sandown, which was a good effort considering he'd had a gruelling race at Haydock.
"That was a handicap, though, and we're taking on Native River so it's going to be a big step up.
"I think it will tell us exactly where we are. We've been quietly excited about him for a long time now – every year he has won big races and done us very proud.
"What Native River has done this year has been exceptional, his Welsh National run was top drawer. It's not an easy race to win – I rode Tidal Bay with top weight and he could only finish third.
"If we're a live contender for the Gold Cup, we've got to be going close."
The only horse taking on the big two is Paul Nicholls' Le Mercurey, who was not far behind the ill-fated Many Clouds at Aintree earlier in the season.
"He is the sort of horse that can spring a surprise. He beat Bristol De Mai at Ayr in the Future Champions Novices' Chase last spring with blinkers on for the first time," said Nicholls.
"He can be a bit in and out, but he goes well fresh and is capable of running to a high level.
"He got beat in a handicap at Ascot last time, but the bigger field didn't suit him. In a small field on Saturday, three miles on soft ground on a flat track will suit him well."
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