The Cheltenham Festival is one of the most popular events on the calendar, and out of all the races on the bill, none are more prestigious than the Gold Cup. The line-up for the 2018 Gold Cup was looking to be the best, as it often is, but many horses have been performing at less than their best in the run-up to the race. Although this wasn’t the case for Colin Tizzard’s Native River, who made an excellent comeback at Newbury ahead of the Cheltenham Festival.

Native River set the pace from the offset in the Denman Chase. Cloudy Dream kept up for a while and looked like he might provide a bit of healthy competition but fell well behind as Native River held stamina to finish 12 lengths ahead. Cloudy Dream came in second and Saphir Du Rheu, back after falling in the Grand National last year, finished in the last place.

“It was the perfect comeback for him. It was only a small injury he had, but the owners were fantastic and the Tizzards have given him a nice slow comeback,” said jockey Richard Johnson when speaking to ITV Racing.

It was Native River’s first race in 11 months after a minor ligament injury following last year’s Gold Cup put the team out of action. Native River missed a lot of racing opportunities over the winter to heal slowly and fully.

Tizzard’s plan has always been to stage a comeback for Native River at the Gold Cup, and the plan seems to be working. Before the race, Native River had around 10/1 odds and was the fourth favorite to win, but those odds have now increased, and some bookies have even declared Native River as the second favorite to win.

“It was an ideal prep for the Gold Cup, and as long as he’s okay in the next 10 days, the dream is still alive,” said Johnson. “He feels every bit as good as he did last year. I think if he can produce last year’s run in the Gold Cup, that puts him bang there.”

Meanwhile, Might Bite, the favorite to win the Gold Cup, skipped the outing at Newbury and will head straight for Cheltenham. The King George legend is still expected to be the winner on the festival day, despite Native River’s apparent comeback boosting their odds of coming first.

The Cheltenham Festival begins on Tuesday, March 13th. The Gold Cup, one of the top races of the year, takes place on March 16th at 3:30 p.m. GMT and will be broadcast live on ITV. It is a Grade 1 race of three miles ½ furlongs for horses age 5+.

Last year’s winner of the Gold Cup was Sizing John. They are currently the second favorites on BetStars this year, having dropped odds due to a couple of flops in races on the run up to Cheltenham. Aside from Might Bite, Sizing John and Native River, other runners to look out for include Coney Island, Road to Respect and Our Duke.