Native River has never been one of ‘my horses’. He’s admirable and consistent and has a formline anyone would love
Jumps placings: U/3116F19/3113321/21113/11/234/11-31
But he never set my soul alight until Saturday when he won the Cotswold Chase at Sandown. For me, he has always been a dogged performer, who got the job done almost out of a sense of duty. On Saturday he looked to have added enthusiasm to his list of considerable assets. It’s most unusual for a horse of his age and experience to suddenly find a new appetite for the business, and it’s difficult for me to explain the difference I saw.
I’ve been watching and betting on NH racing for over 50 years. For the past twenty years or so, I’ve taken into account for punting purposes a horse’s racing demeanour. Is he keen early, does a fence or hurdle light him up, is he tractable, does he hit a flat spot, is there a confidence loss after a jumping error, is he a ‘bridle horse’ (one who looks to be going easily until coming off the bridle and finding nil) and, crucially, how does he carry his head, especially in the late stages?
A lot of up and down head movement late in a race generally signifies a horse who has very little more to offer, and if that head movement is on a shallow plane – a similar plane to this bracket: ( then he’s about done. But if the plane is more like this: < (head outstretched) then he’d probably go in my notebook as he is trying harder, despite being as tired as the others.
With the head carried to one side in a finish, well, that can simply be tiredness. But in one who is challenging, it can be a sign that he’d rather duck in behind the leader than go through with the massive effort needed to fight and to pass everything else.
The ears can tell their tales late on too. Generally, a horse pricking his ears late in a race suggests his mind is not fully on the job. You’ll often see it in idlers; horses who hit the front and think ‘job done’ and their concentration goes. Pricking and flicking during a race is often a good sign, showing the horse is ‘listening’ to his jockey, waiting for the next message via the reins, the legs, or the voice. Or you’ll see ears pricked through alertness as a fence comes up.
There are various other signs with jumping technique, but I’ve rambled long enough on this. I just want to offer some sense of what I recognise when I see a horse racing. Sometimes, I cannot pin it down to one or two things; I’m not sure myself what has made my own ears prick in response to something, but I do believe that Native River is a different horse from the one I’ve watched for most of his life. I looked back at his seasonal debut at Aintree, just to check. Again, he raced with considerable enthusiasm there (I remember vaguely noting it at the time, but, as he wasn’t one of ‘mine’ passing it off). But it was definitely there, and had all 19 fences been jumped that day (9 were omitted) I’m confident he’d have won.
Before going back to the horse, let me emphasise that my own spotting technique is far from infallible. But I’m confident in it and will keep using it. Bear in mind once more, the examples of racing demeanour mentioned above are generalisations; they do not apply to every horse, but, in my experience, they apply to most.
So, back to Native River and leaving aside the demeanour changes. On form alone he ran a cracking race on Saturday. I thought he looked better than ever and the ratings almost agree. He ran to a Racing Post Rating of 177 on Saturday, equalling his best previous rating awarded when he won the 2018 Gold Cup. Al Boum Photo’s rating for his 2020 Gold Cup win was 174. Al Boum Photo is 7/2 for the 2021 Gold Cup while Native River is 16/1 (14s with a run). I think Native River should be half the price he is.
Of his Gold Cup rivals, Santini appears to have gone backwards. Champ hasn’t been seen though he’s due to run at Newbury on Saturday. While he’s been in his box, the form of his RSA win hasn’t quite had the boost many had hoped for. Minella Indo had a fine start to the season before falling at Leopardstown in November then finishing 4th of 5 yesterday, albeit not beaten that far. The other one in that close RSA finish, Allaho, has been nailed by his trainer now as a 20f horse rather than the stayer they thought he was. That’s not to say Champ cannot win the Gold Cup, but his prep has been unusual (annoyingly, Nicky Henderson has never, that I can find, said exactly what has kept the horse off the track) and his jumping, though safe in my view, has no resemblance to the technique of Native River, who’s almost perfected that skill.
Champ is still a work in progress after only 4 chases. He had looked to me more of a 20f horse, but needed every inch of the extended 3 miles in the RSA. If stamina turns out to be his strong suit, he will be very well suited by the Gold Cup trip. But he has much to prove, and Native River has been there and done it.
A Plus Tard must have a chance. I don’t fancy the 10/1 shot Royale Pagaille at all and think he should be twice the price or more. Lostintranslation doesn’t quite see out this trip in top company, and he has bled. Bristol De Mai left his Gold Cup chance in the mud at the weekend. I can’t have Kemboy or Delta Work or Minella Indo; they’re some of the usual suspects mopping up Gold Cup trials among them at home, but I believe a Cheltenham Gold Cup is beyond them. If there’s to be an Irish ‘shock’, I’d say it’ll be Presenting Percy, who disappointed last time but previously thrashed Kemboy.
So, that run-through confirms to me that Native River is superb value at 14/1 NRNB with PaddyPower and a handful more. I’ve backed him single and had some fun putting him in a few low staked perms/accumulators with the festival hot pots. But he’s worth an EW double with one I’ve mentioned on this blog before – Song For Someone, who is 16/1 NRNB for the Champion Hurdle.
Song For Someone stared last season with an official rating of 136. Five races and three wins later finds him on 158, and at 6, he’s far from done progressing. He won at Cheltenham last time beating Silver Streak a nose. He was giving the grey 2lbs and why Silver Streak is half his price in the Champion Hurdle betting I don’t know; Song For Someone is far less exposed than he is. The mares at the head of the betting will be tough to beat, but if value is your motto, Song For Someone is the sole choice, I think, certainly from an each way viewpoint.
That’s it for today. As ever, these are fun bets. Don’t bet more than you’d spend on a pizza and a beer. I’ve found that some newcomers to punting and racing can find themselves mesmerised by longish posts containing ‘out of the box’ thinking, and believe they’ve found a magic money tree. Regulars here could quickly disabuse them of that notion, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. Nick Mordin’s writing used to leave me horrified, so certain did he seem when tipping. He’s an unusual and entertaining tipster, but his, on the face of it, professorial work should have carried wealth warnings.
All the best.