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Gold Cup: Native River is out to make a splash again but Anibale can fly highest to clinch big prize

 

Johnson on Native River celebrates after victory in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup last year
Johnson on Native River celebrates after victory in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup last year

By Ron McKnight

Dromara couple Fred and Maureen Mackey will be hoping for another big day as Native River - a horse they bred - bids to defend his crown in the Cheltenham Gold Cup this afternoon.

The duo will watch the big race on television at their home, with son Wilson representing them at the course as he did last year.

Fred Mackey said: "I was glad to see the rain come. My main worry is the trainer does not appear to be in the same form as normal. However, I am very hopeful for a big run again."

The Ulster breeder and farmer is currently focused on trying to get the mother of Native River, Native Mo, in foal to retain the line that produced the blue riband winner.

The Colin Tizzard-trained Native River, with champion jockey Richard Johnson again in the saddle, is now vying for favouritism following rain earlier this week.

With conditions having turned in his favour, hopes are high that Native River can become the first horse to win back-to-back renewals of the Gold Cup since three-time winner Best Mate (2002-2004).

Since his epic victory over Might Bite 12 months ago, Tizzard's bold-jumping chestnut has finished second in the Betfair Chase at Haydock and third in the King George VI Chase at Kempton.

Joe Tizzard, assistant to his father, said: "This race has been the plan all season - it is the first time he is going to get his perfect conditions, and he comes here in great nick.

"People keep telling me it is difficult for horses to win back-to-back Gold Cups, but there is nothing showing us at home to suggest this horse is any worse than last year - and he is going to get his conditions.

"I think this race is wide open, as far as Gold Cups go."

Native River leads a three-strong Tizzard team, with Welsh Grand National winner Elegant Escape and the veteran Thistlecrack also in the mix.

Presenting Percy is currently the marginal favourite.

The high-class horse - winner of the RSA Chase last year and the Pertemps Hurdle the previous year - has had only one run this season due to ground conditions.

Bellshill is a product of Wilson Dennison's Templepatrick nursery, which has had a quiet week by the owner's normal record at the course, while Definitely Red - bought from Downpatrick trainer Brian Hamilton after winning a local point to point - has proved a very cheap purchase in hindsight.

Anibale Fly, trained by Tony Martin, gets my vote having finished third in the Gold Cup last year followed up by filling fourth in the Grand National.

The JP McManus-owned runner has been looked after by the trainer, but his effort when runner-up to Monalee at Gowran over a trip short of his best reads well. His 33/1 price appeals each way.

McManus could enjoy a good day with Stand Up And Fight engaged in the Foxhunters, and Irish champion rider Derek O'Connor booked.

The horse was last seen when second to Fenno's Storm, subsequent winner of the Tetratema Hunterchase, and won on Boxing Day at Down Royal.

Co Antrim trainer Graham McKeever is represented by Balnaslow and Chosen Dream, while Larne handler Stuart Crawford runs Coastal Tiep with his brother, Ben, aboard.

Coeur Sublime was bought for £260k by Glengormley bloodstock agent Kevin Ross and won the juvenile hurdle at the Down Royal Festival but faces a tough task against Sir Erec and Gardens Of Babylon in the opener.

Birchdale won a Tyrella point to point for Dennison before his sale to McManus and, having won twice for Nicky Henderson and stayed unbeaten, is favourite for the Albert Bartlett Hurdle.

The Noel Meade-trained First Approach represents Belfast's Hunt family in the race.

Daniel McMenamin from Downpatrick won the Greatwood Hurdle at the track back in November and partners Mount Mews for his boss, Donald McCain, in the finale.

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