It's one of the biggest days on the winter jumping calendar and Timeform are here to preview Saturday's Betfair Chase at Haydock and pick out their best bet...
"He's as tough as they come, has won at seven different racetracks, and will have no problem with the forecast good-to-soft ground."
Timeform on Native River
Whether you subscribe to the a good horse will go on any ground doctrine, or prefer the (s)he'll love/hate the ground approach, the going is undoubtedly a factor when looking at Saturday's Grade 1 Betfair Chase, with the incentive of a £1m bonus clearly another.
Kauto Star won the Betfair-provided bonus when landing this race, the King George VI Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2006/7, the last to do so, and Jockey Club Racecourses has offered the same carrot since 2015, designed to encourage trainers to target this race as a key element - rather than a stepping stone - of the season.
Three-time Betfair Chase winner Cue Card did his best to match Kauto Star's achievements, but came up one shy, both in number of wins in this race and when winning the first two legs of the bonus in 2015/16, falling when still in contention at Cheltenham in the final leg.
With Cue Card now retired, his trainer Colin Tizzard could saddle two this year, with Thistlecrack set to join Native River.
It seems a little glib to cover Thistlecrack in one paragraph, but the former World Hurdle winner, who landed the King George as a novice in 2016, has struggled with injury since the 2017 Cotswold Chase. He wasn't able to run up to his best when fourth to Might Bite in last season's King George, his only chase start last term, and he arrives here as the one of the 'big-four' with easily the most to prove.
It has since transpired that Native River's sparing 2017/18 campaign was through necessity rather than design, but it panned out perfectly, his late reappearance in the Denman Chase at Newbury in February putting him spot-on for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham a month later, where testing underfoot conditions over the three and a quarter mile trip gave him the edge over Might Bite. Native River has no problem with quicker ground - five of his 11 wins have come on going described by Timeform as good-to-soft or good - it's just that his grinding front-running style means that he is often still going in testing conditions when others are crying enough.
That was the case at Cheltenham, where Might Bite's stamina ebbed away after the last, having loomed up threateningly two out. Ground conditions and the sharper nature of this track appear to sway things in Might Bite's favour here, though it's worth pointing out that the Betfair Chase distance was extended by one and a half furlongs last season, primarily to give the horses a longer run into the first bend, and as a result there are now 19 obstacles to be jumped rather than 18, with the final fence in the home straight on the Lancashire Course now negotiated three times in total.
The aforementioned Cue Card chased home the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Bristol de Mai last year, the grey becoming the widest-margin winner of any Grade 1 race over jumps (57 lengths) in the process. The winning distance was in stark contrast to Kauto Star's 2009 win, which saw Twiston-Davies' Imperial Commander beaten by a nose. Thankfully for Imperial Commander's connections, he went one place better the following season!
Still only seven, this race will have been the long-term target for Bristol de Mai since he was second (beaten seven lengths) to Might Bite in the Betway Bowl Chase at Aintree in April. He's not always been the most convincing jumper of fences, especially when pressurised for the lead on quicker ground, but he is unbeaten at Haydock in three starts and, while slower ground would be ideal, he's not to be underestimated; this is very much his backyard.
As well as four-time winner Kauto Star, Paul Nicholls trained Silviniaco Conti to a brace of wins in this race, and the Ditcheat handler could saddle Politologue, as well as the year-younger Clan des Obeaux, who was third behind Might Bite and Bristol de Mai when last seen at Aintree in April.
Nicholls appears focused on re-establishing himself as the go-to trainer for big Saturday winners, and the top-class Politologue could be the flag-bearer. He won his first three starts last season, a gutsy beating of Fox Norton sandwiched by wins in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter and Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton, and then chased home Altior on his next two starts. He was stepped back up in trip for the Melling Chase at Aintree when last seen, and rewarded his trainer's faith with a very game neck defeat of Min, the pair miles clear of Sizing Granite in third. Politologue is up in distance again here, but it's worth pointing out that the 2006 renewal of this race was also the first time that Kauto Star had tried three miles.
Don Poli, Shattered Love and Outlander provide a strong trio of Irish/Gordon Elliott-trained entries, though Ireland is yet to taste success in the race's 13-year history, and it's not set in stone that any of the three will travel over the Irish Sea. There's not much between them on weight-adjusted ratings, with all three needing to improve by nearly a stone to better the achievements of Native River and Might Bite, and it looks as tough a task for Don Poli after 650 days off as it looks an unrealistic one for both Shattered Love and Outlander.
As tough as they come
To sum up, there is a chance that this will turn tactical, but with Bristol de Mai and Native River both set to line up, that chance looks very slim. Might Bite, who is no stranger to making the running himself, is a little more adaptable in regards to the way he can be ridden, and that - combined with the good ground and form of his yard - could give him the edge, but at the current prices, Native River makes most appeal at 3/1. He's as tough as they come, has won at seven different racetracks, and will have no problem with the forecast good-to-soft ground.
Of the rest, Politologue has a similar chance to Thistlecrack and Bristol de Mai on ratings, but is available to back at 16/1, perhaps in part due to his entry in the 1965 Chase at Ascot on the same afternoon. His trainer suggested a while ago that he'd rather not run Politologue in a red-hot renewal of this race, but it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see him turn up here given the forecast ground and lure of £1m, not to mention the fact that he'd have to carry a penalty at Ascot.
Minimum Bet Guarantee
Betfair's 'minimum bet guarantee' on all Class 1 and 2 races in the UK and Ireland - which means all customers are able to bet to win a minimum of £500 - has been extended to cover all races at selected meetings this week. T&Cs apply.
Back Back Native River to win Saturday’s Betfair Chase at 4.03/1 or better