As far as Christmas wishes go, the only one jockey Richard Johnson will be hoping comes true is claiming victory aboard Native River in the 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Few of National Hunt racing’s crown jewels have escaped the clutches of the three-times champion jockey during a career spanning more than 20 years, but the Grade One prize, along with the Grand National, is one of the most glaring omissions from his decorated CV.
He said: “There are lots of races I’ve not won, but I would love to win the King George. I’ve been very close in it on Captain Chris a few years ago (2012). It’s a very hard race to win – you need a good horse and you need everything to fall right to win it.
“It is the biggest race over Christmas and one of the major pointers to the Gold Cup, as well as being one of the feature races of the whole season and it would be lovely to win it.”
Having steered the Colin Tizzard-trained gelding to Gold Cup glory in March, the 41-year-old believes that should conditions be in his favour, he can build on an encouraging return to action last month when finding only Bristol De Mai too good in the Betfair Chase at Haydock.
He said: “I thought he ran really well at Haydock in that he jumped nicely and travelled well. It was good ground on a sharp track, so it wasn’t the perfect situation or ideal conditions, but saying that he still ran a very good race.
“Take nothing away from the winner on the day, as he was very impressive and if he can produce that at Kempton he will take a lot of beating.
“I think Cheltenham is what suits him the best, but Kempton will be better than Haydock for him and hopefully that ground will be a bit slower, which will be in his favour.
“He has won around Newbury on a flat track, but I think Cheltenham just brings out the best of his credentials in his class and stamina, whereas stamina is probably not quite to the fore at Kempton.
“At the same time though, it is sure to be run at a really strong pace and there is nowhere to hide and from four out to the line it will be a test of stamina.
“I’d like to think he goes there with a decent chance and he is in very good form, which is what I like to see.”
In what is one of the most open renewals of the prestigious three-mile contest in recent years, Johnson rates two old rivals as significant dangers.
He added: “I think it’s a very competitive race. For me, if Might Bite comes back to form he is going to have a fantastic chance, if he can put the Haydock run behind him.
“I also think Thistlecrack, if he can improve on his first run he will be a danger, as when he won the King George he was very impressive.
“But, fingers crossed, if Native River has better conditions than at Haydock then he has to have a strong chance.
“It would be a very special race to win – he is a horse that has already given me a lot of good days already and hopefully there are plenty more to come, starting on Boxing Day.”