Jonjo O’Neill junior is relishing the opportunity to ride 2018 Gold Cup winner Native River in the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury.
O’Neill has been called up by Colin Tizzard because champion jockey and regular partner Richard Johnson on the sidelines with a broken arm.
Johnson is expected to be back in action early next month – but in case he should meet trouble in his recuperation, Tizzard was keen to use someone who would be free to take the mount again in the Gold Cup.
Native River won for the first time since his crowning glory on his only previous start this season at Aintree, where old rival Might Bite was an early casualty – and the two meet again on Saturday.
O’Neill said: “I’m really looking forward to it.
“I’ve only sat on him once – when I schooled him over fences – and he schooled well. He is in good form and is a fresh horse.
“It doesn’t look the deepest race, but at the same time he has got to go jump all the fences and get round.
“It is huge, and I’m very thankful to the Tizzards – and (owners) Mr and Mrs Broom – because it is a big call-up.
“At the end of the day, it is just another a horse race – but it’s a big one. It is a better race, for sure, but I will treat everything the same and hope everything will come good.
“Dicky (Johnson) made sure he had a race last time, so he will definitely be fit enough, and the blinkers sharpened him up a bit – so I hope he can get the job done on Saturday.”
The only opponent rated within 19lb of Native River is Might Bite, but it has been a long time since he has run to his mark of 163 – and he has not beaten a rival since winning the Bowl at Aintree in 2018.
He was pulled up after stopping quickly last time out over hurdles, and Nicky Henderson admits he has been left baffled by his performances over the last two years.
He said: “It will be a nice place for him to go and have a canter round. We are just getting him back.
“We’ve done a few different things with him, and he seems in good form. I’ve not galloped him since (pulling up). He has been doing lots of schooling and jumping and been having fun.
“It will be (another clash with Native River), but he does seem bright in himself. We hadn’t got a plan (if not running here). We are still scratching our heads. He is fit and well. He has been ticking over all the time.
“He has been going all over the place. Nico (de Boinville) went for a school on him around the place the other day, jumping all sorts of things, and he absolutely loved it.
“He is never a brilliant work horse at home. I do (think) there is another good race in him.
“People say they ought to retire him. But I can tell you two good horses that everybody wanted to retire, and they came back – Sprinter Sacre and Faugheen.”
Secret Investor, Activial, A Toi Phil, The Two Amigos and Valdez complete the field.