O’Neill jr relishing chance to ride Gold Cup winner Native River for Betfair Denman Chase triple bid

Leading conditional jockey stands in for injured champion Richard Johnson on former Gold Cup winner on outstanding Betfair Super Saturday card which also features Altior

Jonjo O’Neill jr is looking forward to the biggest ride of his blossoming career when he makes his debut on 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Native River as he seeks a third victory in the Betfair Denman Chase.

O’Neill jr, the 22-year-old son of trainer Jonjo O’Neill, has been handed a coveted opportunity to ride the Colin Tizzard-trained star because regular partner, champion jockey Richard Johnson, has been sidelined with a broken arm.

Native River, winner of the Betfair Denman Chase in 2017 and 2018, heads a field of seven for the £50,000 3m contest, part of an outstanding Betfair Super Saturday card at Newbury that also features the Betfair Hurdle and Betfair Exchange Chase, in which Altior will meet five opponents.

Native River will rekindle his rivalry with Might Bite, the 2017 King George VI Chase winner who Native River defeated to win the Gold Cup, and Secret Investor, whose trainer Paul Nicholls has won the race nine times. 

With Might Bite having failed to complete his last three starts, Native River is set to go off an odds-on chance to build on a winning comeback at Aintree in December.

His jockey said: “On ratings he is definitely clear but Might Bite would be the danger if he came back to his old form. He hasn’t been at his best recently but he’s definitely not one to discard.”

O’Neill jr was chosen over a number of established names for the mount on Native River, an arrangement that will continue in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham if Johnson fails to recover in time. 

The rider’s biggest success to date was on Early Doors in last year’s Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle. With 49 winners he holds a clear lead in this season’s conditional jockeys championship although he has ridden out his claim.

“I don’t get too nervous about races,” O’Neill said. “I was excited when I got told I had the ride, but I’ve got other horses to think about first and I will wake up on Saturday and try to treat it like a normal race.

“I schooled Native River last Wednesday and he schooled well. He is a great jumper and he seems in good form.

“I definitely think he is still Gold Cup class. He didn’t do a whole lot wrong last season for a horse that had a really hard campaign when he won at Cheltenham. He looks a little bit fresher this year and I think they’ve trained him to peak for the spring. It is still a very open Gold Cup and he has a good chance of being in the mix.”

O’Neill has picked up the mount on Highly Prized in the Betfair Hurdle for trainer Emma Lavelle who will be hoping to continue a lucrative campaign at Newbury which has so far yielded a victory in the Ladbrokes Trophy with De Rasher Counter and Long Distance Hurdle with Paisley Park.

“I rode him out on Thursday and off a light weight he looks to have a decent chance,” he said. “The form of his Huntingdon win was franked by Sebastopol at Musselburgh last weekend.”

Champion two-mile chaser Altior will attempt to regain the winning thread in the Betfair Exchange Chase in which he is one of six declarations.

The Nicky Henderson-trained star suffered his first defeat in 19 starts over obstacles when beaten by Cyrname at Ascot in December over 2m5f.

He faces Sceau Royal, Kalashkinov, Bun Doran, Dynamite Dollars and Simply Ned in the Grade 2 race he has won twice before.

Betfair spokesman Barry Orr said, “Betfair Super Saturday is a day which never fails to deliver great action. With a full complement of 24 in the Betfair Hurdle, plus former Gold Cup winner Native River and the return of Altior, we’re looking forward to another day of exciting racing.”

Betfair betting for Betfair Exchange Chase: 4-9 Altior, 7-1 Sceau Royal, 15-2 Dynamite Dollars, 9-1 Kalashnikov, 10-1 Bun Doran, 25-1 Simply Ned

Betfair betting for Betfair Denman Chase: 1-3 Native River, 9-2 Might Bite, 8-1 Secret Investor, 25-1 Activial, The Two Amigos, 33-1 A Toi Phil, 40-1 Valdez