Nicholls: Native hard to beat

Bristol De Mai and Native River remain on course for a fascinating clash in Saturday's Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury.

Daryl Jacob riding Bristol De Mai at Haydock

Both horses produced brilliant displays in handicap company last time out, with Bristol De Mai up to a rating of 166 after a 22-length demolition job in the Peter Marsh, and Native River now on 168 following his success over Christmas in the Coral Welsh National.

Should both stand their ground, a place as clear second-favourite to Thistlecrack in the Gold Cup betting would surely be up for grabs, with Native River currently occupying that position at 9/2 with Sky Bet.

And it's Native River who gets the vote from trainer Paul Nicholls, who saddles Le Mercurey in opposition.

"I daresay Native River will be hard to beat and I think he is the one for everyone to beat in the Gold Cup and that's always been my opinion," he told the assembled media at his Ditcheat base on Tuesday.

"I thought that when he won the Welsh National because that was a real staying performance carrying top-weight and it will be interesting to see how he runs against Bristol De Mai.

"Le Mercurey is always better off in a small field on a flat track. He ran very well at Aintree before Christmas when beaten by Many Clouds. We just ran him a little bit negatively and Sean [Bowen] thought if we'd taken Many Clouds on we would have finished a lot closer to him.

"He's the sort of horse who can spring a surprise. He beat Bristol De Mai at Ayr last spring with blinkers on first time and he goes well fresh. He is capable of running to a very high level and he can be a little bit in and out.

"The bigger field at Ascot last time didn't suit him but a small field on Saturday, three miles and a flat track will suit him well. On form we're playing for third place money but he is capable of running above himself in a small field on a flat track."

Also in the five-strong line-up are O Maonlai and More Of That, the latter having shown a glimpse of the form which took him to a World Hurdle when midfield in the Lexus Chase last time out.

Jonjo O'Neill's horse was among the entries for the Cross Country Chase on Trials Day, and is a considerably shorter price for the Festival equivalent (8/1) than he is for the Gold Cup (50/1).

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