Native River put himself right back in the Cheltenham Gold Cup picture as he made an impressive seasonal bow in the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury.
Colin Tizzard's charge won the Hennessy Gold Cup, the Welsh Grand National and this Grade Two prize last season and despite having been off the track since finishing third in the Festival feature last March, he was a well-backed 8-11 favourite for his belated comeback.
The eight-year-old soon adopted his customary pacesetting role in the hands of champion jockey Richard Johnson and when given the signal between the final two fences, he stamina shone through as he strolled home by 12 lengths
Cloudy Dream was second, with Saphir Du Rheu last of the three runners on his first start since falling in the Grand National last April.
Tizzard said: "It was an ideal prep for the Gold Cup and as long as he's OK in the next 10 days, the dream is still alive.
"When they turned to the cross-fence the two greys were travelling very well, but he's a good jumper and when Richard asked he went away almost effortlessly. He's such a good horse.
"I'm sure he'll improve, it's race fitness isn't it? The cards were dealt for us when he had ligament trouble. This was always going to be his first race.
"We were getting a bit jumpy when the frost was forecast as we needed this race before the Gold Cup."
Johnson expects Native River to make his presence felt in the blue riband at Cheltenham, for which he is a general 6-1 shot.
He added: "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.
"He was only beaten just over two lengths in it last year and the Gold Cup looks very open this year.
"You've got to think he's got a fantastic chance."
Ruth Jefferson was pleased with the performance of Cloudy Dream, who appears likely to come back in trip for the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham next month before potentially tackling three miles again at Aintree in April.
She said: "We will try him for the Ryanair. He has done nothing wrong and I'm pleased with how he has run. He has handled the ground and jumped fab.
"We will have a look at the Betfair Bowl as I think three miles around Aintree on good ground - it is a sharper track - wouldn't be a problem.
"Looking at that today, you couldn't see him coming up (the hill) in the Cheltenham Gold Cup."
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