JOCKEY Richard Johnson is praying for slow ground as he looks to retain the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday on board Native River.

The pairing clinched on of the top prizes in horse racing in 2018 and the Pembridge-based jockey hopes to repeat the feat this year, writes Graham Saveker

After riding Native River to a second place at Sandown earlier this month Johnson is again confident his horse has a good chance.

“After Sandown the other day, the way he travelled, the way he jumped, his enthusiasm – as long as the ground is on the slower side I think he goes there with a huge chance,” he said.

The Ultima Chase is also a race in which Johnson has a chance aboard northern challenger Aye Right.

The Cheltenham National Hunt Festival begins on Tuesday under very different circumstances to that of last year with no spectators or owners but as usual local connections are looking for winners.

Trainer Venetia Williams is no stranger to success at the Festival and this year the impressive novice chaser Royale Pigalle carries her main hope of success.

Williams, with stable jockey Charlie Deutsch, also has a number of multiple entries from her Kings Caple yard during the week with Cepage a possible in Tuesdays Ultima Chase.

Additionally her Funembule Sivola holds an entry in Tuesdays Arkle Chase in which ex-British point to pointer Blackbow is still a fancied runner for new connections.

A runner to watch could be her improving novice chaser Espoir De Geye who could run well for Williams in the Plate Handicap Chase on Thursday, a race she has won three times previously.

Hoarwithy trainer Tom Symonds has been enjoying a successful season with 29 winners and his stable star Song For Someone was entered in the feature Champion Hurdle but he has confirmed that his Song For Someone will miss the opening Tuesday highlight the Champion hurdle due to the ill-health of his owner Sir Peter Gibbings.

Symonds said: “Time is very much not on Sir Peter’s side and we have to respect his decision.

"We think that this is coming at the wrong time for the family and we need to respect their privacy. I wouldn't force this and they’ve alluded to the fact the horse has been thrilling already and doesn’t owe them anything.”

The exciting hurdler will now be aimed at Aintree’s Grand National meeting next month.

Michael Scudamore is hopeful his Kingswell Theatre, successful earlier in the season over the Cheltenham Cross Country Chase course, can produce another winning performance on Wednesday with brother Tom Scudamore likely to be in the saddle;

Much Marcle trainer Tom Lacey is leaning towards the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle on Thursday as he goes in search of his first Cheltenham Festival success with his horse Adrimel.

“I know his win at Haydock was over two miles, but it was only through Richard Johnson’s perseverance that he won, he said.

"I’d probably be leaning towards the Albert Bartlett (over the Ballymore), because it looks the weaker of the two races, though we will just follow the weather a bit.

“We will probably confirm him for both races, but I think the Albert Bartlett might be the right race for him. He shouldn’t be taken off his feet going up to three miles, and he should have plenty of time to jump the hurdles.”

Lacey will also be running his Tea Clipper at Cheltenham, with the Coral Cup his most likely target on the Wednesday of the meeting.

Kerry Lee has her stable star Happy Diva entered during the week, holding entries in Thursdays Plate Handicap Chase and Friday’s Mares Chase and whichever target the Byton trainer chooses, her consistent mare is sure to give a good account of her herself.