Paul Nicholls’ stunning seven-timer on Saturday served notice, should it be needed, that he is peerless in his profession.
By his own admission, the jumps trainers’ championship, for which he is now a 1/10 chance, is ‘his to lose’ – which is refreshing in itself given most elite sports people are programmed to play down such prospects whenever pressed by the media.
However, buoyed by the news that Paddy Power are have gone early with their NRNB offer, it’s the Ditcheat Cheltenham Festival squad that I want to focus on.
Let’s start with the big one – the Gold Cup. Cyrname and Frodon are Nicholls’ two prime candidates and although the former is shorter in ante-post lists, it’s Frodon that probably has the more appealing profile for the race.
Frodon Going For Gold
Frodon undoubtedly enjoyed the run of the race in the King George but the form book says he can produce top-class form at Cheltenham, as he showed in the 2019 Ryanair Chase.
We don’t know whether he’ll truly stay the Gold Cup trip against top-class opposition but his aptitude for a battle can’t be questioned and I much prefer his chance to stablemate Cyrname who, despite having looked a world-beater over shorter trips around Ascot, simply has too much to prove now after a particularly tame effort at Kempton on Boxing Day.
With McFabulous, the team’s highest profile winner on Saturday, likely to swerve the Stayers’ Hurdle and instead head to Aintree, Nicholls’ best chance of a championship race victory appears to be with Politologue in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Underestimate The Champion At Your Peril
For some reason, Politologue’s achievements don’t seem to get the recognition they deserve. We are dealing with a four-time Grade 1-winning chaser and the reigning two-mile champion. Sure, it was a severely weakened edition of the race but that’s not Politologue’s fault and he duly did his job, just as he did in the Tingle Creek this season.
A sterner examination no doubt awaits this year if leading Irish hope Chacun Pour Soi makes the gig but Willie Mullins’ star two-miler still needs to prove that he can produce his best at Cheltenham, unlike Politologue, and we might get more of a race than many of Chacun’s fans (and the market) are expecting.
Steel A Ryanair Lurker
The 11-time champion British jumps trainer clearly knows what is required to win the Ryanair Chase having won the race three times and he has another interesting contender this time around.
Real Steel is yet to strike at the top level but a 14-length demolition of Footpad at Thurles early last year demonstrates that he’s capable of very smart form and the Ryanair looks the ideal race for him trip-wise.
He stopped pretty quickly in the King George, indicating there might be a breathing issue, but Nicholls has enough time to get that resolved and have him primed for the Ryanair Chase, for which he has to be considered a dangerous lurker at double-figure odds.
Destination Very Much Going The Right Way
Another horse transferred to Nicholls having previously been trainer by Willie Mullins is Next Destination who looks a big player in the Cheltenham Festival Novices’ Chase, formerly known as the RSA Chase.
Next Destination was a seriously talented hurdler, winning two Grade 1’s as a novice, but he’s clearly had issues and had 18 months out between April 2018 and October 2020.
However, he could be about to quickly make up for lost time over fences judging by his impressive performance in a Grade 2 novices’ chase at Newbury.
He has a tendency to jump a bit to his left which might be an issue at Warwick this coming Saturday, but it won’t be a problem at Cheltenham and stamina certainly won’t be an issue when it comes to Cheltenham.
He’s a general 16/1 chance for the festival novice event right now but a stylish win in Warwick’s Grade 2 Hampton Novices’ Chase will see those odds crumble and he could easily turn out to be the number one British challenger to warm favourite Monkfish.
Talented Hitman Very Much A Work In Progress
Hitman appears to have a good bit to find if he is going to make a serious splash in a Cheltenham Festival novice chase but the manner in which Paul Nicholls told reporters after his Henry VIII Novices’ Chase defeat to Allmankind that he ‘wouldn’t be afraid to take on the winner again’ strongly suggests that connections think this young chaser is very much a work in progress.
Can he improve sufficiently to give a horse like Shishkin a race in the Arkle? Maybe that gap is too big to close in such a short space of time, but there is no doubt that Hitman is a high-class novice chaser who can be expected to keep on improving for a good while yet.
Hitman’s pedigree hints at him being able to stay further as he progresses, indeed connections look set to put that to the test by running him in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown next month, but he would run into Envoi Allen if going up to two-and-a-half miles for the Marsh Novices’ Chase.
He is undoubtedly one to keep on the right side of in the short term.
Brave Quickly Becoming A Man
Nicholls’ most exciting novice hurdler has to be Bravemansgame who currently heads ante-post betting lists for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (top price 4/1).
Bravemansgame looks a bit of a machine in truth. He’s a relentless galloper who proved far too good for some extremely talented rivals in the Tolworth Hurdle at Newbury over the festive period.
Having made the running, Harry Cobden’s mount just devoured the ground in the Newbury straight, powering clear of the talented Star Gate to post arguably the strongest piece of novice hurdle form seen this side of the Irish Sea this term.
Connections had been concerned about soft ground going into that race but Bravemansgame made light of the conditions which enhances his Cheltenham prospects further given he won’t mind what the weather does.
The Ballymore looks the right race trip wise and this 6-year-old is arguably Nicholls’ best chance of a festival winner.
Bucks Well Worth An Albert Bartlett
Barbados Buck’s doesn’t have anything like as strong form as Bravemansgame but he is a progressive novice and that in itself makes him a potential threat in a race like the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.
It takes an above average sort to win three novice events on the bounce and Barbados Buck’s showed career-best form in giving 10lb and a beating to some useful rivals at Kempton.
Further improvement is very much required to be competitive in just an ordinary renewal of the Albert Bartlett but that is by no means out of the question and stamina looks very much his forte so the staying novice race looks ideal.