Joe Tizzard is savouring the prospect of an early-season showdown between Native River and Might Bite in Haydock’s Betfair Chase on Saturday.
The duo, trained by Tizzard’s father Colin and Nicky Henderson respectively, went toe-to-toe in the Cheltenham Gold Cup last term - with Native River eventually proving four and a half lengths too good after an enthralling battle which rendered the other 13 runners mere bystanders on the day.
Native River enjoyed an extended break following that gutsy triumph, while Might Bite went on to notch a seven-length success in the Betway Bowl at Aintree, and assistant trainer Tizzard is eager to see how the pair shape up on their seasonal bows.
He said: “Of course we are (looking forward to taking on Might Bite). It was a hell of a duel in the Gold Cup, and I’m glad we came out on top.
“It was good to watch. It was nice to see Might Bite bounce back at Aintree and slaughter the rest that day, because it just franks the form even more.
“It is nice to have those two competing all the time, and it would be great for racing and great for us. We have got massive respect for him, but we are not going to hide away from him. We are looking forward to it.
“Native River handles Newbury well, and Haydock has a nice galloping straight, so he can wind it up a long way out. He has been pretty good around a lot of tracks.”
While Native River is undoubtedly the Tizzard team’s number one hope, they have an admirable second string to their bow in Thistlecrack - an impressive winner of the 2016 King George VI Chase, who has had his problems since.
Now a 10-year-old, Thistlecrack was forced to bypass an intended run in last month’s Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby because of the quick ground, but Tizzard expects him to take his chance on Saturday - with the going currently reported to be good to soft.
He said: “He will run on ‘good to soft’ good, but it was quicker than that at Wetherby. Last season it wasn’t his tendon that was a problem - it was a stress fracture. If the ground stays as it is, we have no problems with both of them.
“He would have had no penalties at Wetherby. It was a good little race, and we didn’t have a Cue Card for it this season, so it seemed right for him to go for it - and had it been a fraction softer, he would have.
“He is getting older, and this is probably his last season to be at the top of his game, so we need to get him out into these big races as often as possible.
“Hopefully we will do (get him to the Gold Cup) - but it has been frustrating, especially after he won the King George because we were so excited about running him in it. We still think we have got one more chance with him.
“There is not a plan B. We are never set in stone with anything, but we will do right in what the horse is telling us.
“We are really pleased with where we have got him and are looking forward to running him on Saturday - but if he is not competitive then we will have to re-jiggle and look elsewhere.”
Both horses geared up for the Grade One feature with a racecourse gallop together at Exeter last week, and Tizzard was more than satisfied with how that worked out.
He added: “They both went down to Exeter last Wednesday - we just had an away day. We didn’t want to gallop them particularly hard, because we can do that at home. We just wanted to take them for an away day to get their blood up and let them enjoy themselves.
“They had a two-mile gallop, and Tom (Scudamore on Thistlecrack) and Dicky (Richard Johnson on Native River) had a chance to sit on them both again. They went a bit quicker up the straight.
“Native River had a school on Sunday morning over fences and he schooled absolutely beautifully. We will just do standard stuff on the way up to the race.”
Might Bite is the even-money favourite with the sponsors after nine horses were left in the race at Monday’s confirmation stage.
In addition to the Tizzard-trained runners, last year’s winner Bristol De Mai is still in the mix for Nigel Twiston-Davies, while Paul Nicholls has two potential candidates in Clan Des Obeaux and Politologue.
Gordon Elliott is responsible for the other three contenders with Shattered Love, Outlander and the long-absent Don Poli.