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A 15-runner Gold Cup turned into a match race here on Friday, and it made for one of the most thrilling and compelling spectacles that anyone in a 70,000 crowd could remember. Over 22 fences and three-and-a-quarter miles, Native River and Might Bite fought a private battle as their trailing opponents tried and failed to close the gap, and it was only after jumping the last upsides that Native River found the strength to see off his rival.

It had seemed that Richard Johnson and Native River were a sitting target just 30 seconds earlier. From one fence to the next, they had been duelling with Nico de Boinville and Might Bite, each horse daring the other to make a mistake or give some ground and then rising to the challenge every time. But on the run to the home turn, Might Bite drew alongside Native River and appeared to be travelling better. The 4-1 favourite, it seemed, was about to take control.

But Johnson, whose only previous victory in the Gold Cup was 18 years ago, knew exactly what he was doing. He also knew that while Native River may not be the fastest steeplechaser in training, no horse can match him for strength and stamina at the end of a gruelling race on soft ground.

Front-runners had been tying up in the straight here all week, unable to keep up their gallop on the most demanding Festival going for 20 years. Native River, though, is cut from a different cloth. His first two strides after jumping the last had a strength and purpose that Might Bite’s did not, and opened a lead that Native River would not surrender. He crossed the line four-and-a-half lengths clear of the opponent who had harried him from the off, with another four back to Anibale Fly, a 33-1 outsider, in third.

Johnson, typically, paid tribute afterwards to his horse rather than his own skill in the saddle, but this was as fine a front-running ride on desperate ground as anyone could hope to see. Had he pressed on too soon, stung into action by Might Bite’s refusal to submit, then even Native River’s strength might have drained away on the final climb to the line. Johnson’s timing and judgement were flawless. On jumping’s biggest day, and in its most prestigious race, Johnson produced a ride that was equal to the occasion.

“I felt we’d gone quite steady, but sometimes when you’re on a good horse, it doesn’t feel that quick,” Johnson said. “I thought I needed to move on a gear down the back straight, and the more I asked him, the better he jumped. I could see Might Bite next to me and going to two out, he looked to be travelling quite well. But I knew that he’s a stayer and he answered every call. It’s very testing conditions, but he’s just a warrior and it’s a pleasure to ride him. Might Bite has run a fantastic race and on a different track or in different conditions, it might have been different. But today, everything was in our favour.

“It’s always down to the horse. If you’re on the right horse and they get into a rhythm, riding from the front is almost easy as you’ve got nothing to get in your way. With a horse like him, he just gets on and does it, and very few horses are as straightforward and brave as he is.”

Native River is still only an eight-year-old, but he has now recorded victories in three of National Hunt’s most demanding races, having taken the Hennessy Gold Cup and the Welsh National – under top weight – last season. He may have been feeling the effects of those races when he could finish only third behind Sizing John in last year’s Gold Cup, and as a result, Colin Tizzard, the winner’s trainer, decided on a much less demanding campaign this season with the Gold Cup as its only target.

Native River did not appear until mid-February, 330 days after last year’s Gold Cup, but he was straight enough to record a 12-length win and Friday’s victory proved that, like the winner’s jockey, Tizzard had done his job brilliantly.

“It’s unreal,” Tizzard said. “It’s the fourth day and the Irish have been winning everything. I was thinking our form is not as good as we imagined. Then Richard Johnson gives that brave horse that sort of ride and everything changes. When Might Bite came alongside and maybe even headed him, I thought, oh no. But then Richard was brilliant.

“He wasn’t quite right after Cheltenham last year and we made a plan to give him one run at Newbury before coming here. I was getting a bit jumpy at Christmas and thought we ought to run him then, but we stuck to the plan and it’s paid off.”

Might Bite’s defeat meant that Nicky Henderson was frustrated in his attempt to record a unique treble of wins in the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup at the same Festival, but the trainer was generous in defeat.

“A great race,” Henderson said, “and he has done nothing wrong. We were taking on a horse who absolutely loves this [ground] and unfortunately, we don’t. Might Bite landed in front and then hit that patch of [heavy] ground and that was as much as he could do.”

Might Bite is a nine-year-old, a year older than Native River, but there must be every chance that the two horses will renew their rivalry here next year, and probably on faster ground. Both horses are quoted at 8-1 for next year’s Gold Cup, but even if this is the only time they ever meet at Cheltenham, their duel around two circuits of jumping’s most cherished course will go down as one of the great Gold Cups.

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