The National Hunt season is in full swing and many of the top trainers are already looking ahead to both the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals in 2018. The Randox Health Grand National is always a huge ante-post betting event and many of the potential runners have already taken to the track this year in preparation for the iconic meetings.
Welsh Grand National winner Native River hasn't been seen since finishing third behind Sizing John in the Cheltenham Gold Cup back in March 2017 and is currently one of the favourites for the Aintree event with many punters suggesting the seven-year-old's ability over the longer distance could be pivotal to its chances.
Originally, the Tizzard yard were planning just one warm-up run for Native River before making a decision on whether to target the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup or head to Merseyside instead. However, stable mate Thistlecrack appeared a little rusty at Newbury when finishing fifth of six and the stable are wary of a similar fate befalling Native River.
A second race before March could now be the plan for the yard. As one of 2016's leading staying chasers, fans are looking forward to seeing Native River in action once again and the Denman Chase in February appears to be a realistic target.
It is run over three miles and is a Grade 2 event in which the Tizzard charge enjoyed success last year finishing three and a quarter lengths ahead of Le Mercurey. The yard are still considering the option of an additional run and they expect to make a decision by mid-January but options could be thin on the ground.
Native River has been a revelation since taking to the racecourse for the first time back in October 2014 and has been victorious in six of 11 chase starts including a memorable success in the Welsh Grand National at the end of 2016.
He excelled over the three miles and five furlongs, beating 19 rivals to scoop the prize for connections. The seven-year-old has also raced over further when completing four miles in the National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup at Cheltenham in 2016 finishing second behind Minella Rocco. There was only a length and a quarter between the leading pair when they hit the line and it perfectly encapsulated Native River's appetite for the longer duration and there still appeared to be plenty left in the tank.
The rivals could be set to meet again on the 14th of April 2018 at Aintree and as of the 22nd of December, Betway have priced the Tizzard runner up as the joint second favourite at 20/1 whilst the Jonjo O'Neill-trained Minella Rocco can be backed at 25/1. Native River has shown plenty of versatility over the past three years with victories over the two miles as well as proving perfectly adept over the smaller obstacles.
Grand National Rivals
As always, the Grand National will get underway at 5:15pm and will be viewed by millions of sports fans around the world. Forty horses will battle it out over the undulating and energy-sapping four miles and 514 yards.
Blaklion appears to be one of Native River's biggest rivals for success at Aintree and made a sensational return in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in November. The Twiston-Davies inmate was impressive when triumphing in the Randox Health Becher Chase at the beginning of December 2017 leading his trainer to compare the favourite to Red Rum.
The eight-year-old was foot perfect throughout and could be tough to beat in April. He was three lengths ahead of Definitly Red in the aforementioned Charlie Hall and the runner-up is likely to return for another crack at the Grand National after pulling up in the 2017 staging for trainer Brian Ellison.
Total Recall is likely to swerve the Cheltenham Gold Cup in favour of the Grand National and looked impressive when beating Whisper at the beginning of December. The Last Samurai shouldered top weight in the 2017 running of the event and finished 16th but is likely to be much more competitive this time around.
Native River's path is yet to be decided but the seven-year-old has already received plenty of support in the Grand National market. Tizzard are renowned as one of the most astute and savvy operators in the business and they will be plotting the best route to success for their charge. The Grand National is all about stamina, persistence and tenacity and Native River has all three in abundance and is in prime position for a huge run at Aintree in April.