No one is due in this game. Having spent an age getting to National Hunt’s high table, farming’s favourite trainer Colin Tizzard did not need telling that. He dreamt the Gold Cup dream with Cue Card only to see him fall three out in 2016, and last year thought his name might be on the trophy with Thistlecrack, who failed to make it to the line.
And then along comes Native River with a lung-busting romp that broke the hearts of the all-conquering Irish, not to mention history-chaser Nicky Henderson, to proclaim both the mystery and magic of the turf.
A three-and-a-quarter mile slog of inestimable effort on the heaviest ground for a quarter of a century came down to the last furlong, a 220-yard sprint off the final fence to determine the winner. Native River and Might Bite had been in each other’s company at the front of the field from the opening strides, and would not be separated until the drag up the most hostile incline in racing.
The intensity was such that it drew from the stewards a fine and a seven day ban for winning jockey Richard Johnson for excessive use of the whip over the final two fences. Distinguishing degrees of harm towards horses asked to run in conditions as testing as these seems absurd, since none of them would chose to hammer around Cheltenham with a man strapped to their backs.
The going in the parade ring was heavy, never mind the track. Some polished heels will never be seen again after this campaign, neither might some of those combustible young jocks in too-tight trousers, who looked as spent as the horses after this epic duel.
History and a heap of cash was riding on Might Bite, who was bidding to deliver for trainer Henderson the unprecedented holy trinity of Gold Cup, Champion Chase and Champion Hurdle in the same year.
Henderson will never get this close again without pulling it off, his horse giving all he had not to disappoint.
But this was Native River’s time. Third last year behind Sizing John, and lightly run after a tough 2017, he could have done another lap. From four out these two had left the rest behind as they poured down the hill to the final bend.
It seemed Might Bite had it all in hand, just waiting to be released by Nico de Boinville, who had already been carried to glory once this week, flying up the hill on Altior to win the Champion Chase. He must have thought the double was on as he approached the last, but when they hit the ground it was Native River who had the legs, jockey Richard Johnson gradually hauling him clear for a second Gold Cup 18 years after his first.
“It was brilliant,” he said. “You could not ask for a better partner. I have not got any brains, and I don’t think he has too many but he always goes the right way. I was lucky enough to win this race 18 years ago and it was all a bit of a shock. I want to enjoy this one.”
Tizzard, who farms and trains in Dorset, was similarly minded. “It’s unreal,” he said. “It’s the fourth day and the Irish have been winning everything. I was thinking our form was not what we imagined. Then Richard Johnson gives that brave horse that sort of ride and everything changes.
“He wasn’t quite right after Cheltenham last year and we couldn’t get him going any earlier this season. I came here at 17 and 18 years of age and never thought I would win the Gold Cup. I’ve just done it. If you ask me again I’ll start crying again.”
There were no hard feelings from Henderson, who acknowledged Might Bite had given his all.
“A great race,” he said. “We were taking on a horse who absolutely loves this (heavy ground) and unfortunately we don’t. Might Bite has run his socks off. He landed in front (final fence) and then hit that patch of ground. That was as much as he could do.”