Nicholls: Tidal Bay may swerve Festival
Paul Nicholls says he could yet bypass the Cheltenham Festival altogether with Tidal Bay in order for the popular 12-year-old to make it to the John Smith's Grand National in the best possible shape.
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The champion trainer finally ended a long quest to win the Aintree showpiece a year ago with Neptune Collonges and he appeared delighted with the lenience shown by handicapper Phil Smith towards top-weight Tidal Bay.
Second in the Hennessy and subsequently the winner of an epic Lexus Chase over Christmas, the once-quirky veteran missed an outing at Cheltenham Trials Day when some pus was found in a foot.
"Tidal Bay has been in great form and he is due to run off 4lb lower than he did in the Hennessy," said Nicholls.
"That's a huge incentive to run and I think the handicapper has given him an outstanding chance. We always knew he'd be on 11st 10lb, it was just the rating itself we wanted to find out.
"I've taken him out of the Gold Cup and I don't want to rush him.
"If he's ready he can go for the World Hurdle but I don't want to forego his chance in the National."
Nicholls has three other interesting contenders and expects each to line up. No decisions have been made on jockeys, with Ruby Walsh juggling commitments with Nicholls, Willie Mullins and possibly his father, Ted.
Nicholls said: "What A Friend (11st 5lb) has the same sort of profile to Neptune Collonges, having been placed in a Gold Cup.
"He'll go to Kempton in a fortnight and then we'll get together with Sir Alex (Ferguson, owner). He might miss Cheltenham in order to keep him fresh.
"Harry The Viking is in good form and he could run at Doncaster next. He's got a nice weight and could just go there and run tidy.
"Join Together is the one we set our stall out to get ready for the National and he ran a great race in the Becher. He could run at Doncaster next week and is the sort that could run really well."
Ballabriggs, successful in 2011, is another on 11st, the same weight as he carried to victory under Jason Maguire.
Trainer Donald McCain said: "That weight is fine for Ballabriggs and it will be grand if the top horse (Tidal Bay) runs because then we will have a lovely racing weight. He will go to Kelso for the Premier Chase, as he has done for the past two years."
While Albertas Run, second on 11st 8lb, will bid for a third Ryanair Chase before talk of Aintree is raised by trainer Jonjo O'Neill, it was fascinating to learn at the unveiling of the weights in London that the marathon was not being dismissed for Imperial Commander (11st 6lb), star of the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup who only recently returned from an absence of nearly two years.
"Imperial Commander's next race is the Gold Cup, that's what we're aiming for," said trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies.
"If for some reason that doesn't work out, it's a hell of a consolation prize. I hope he'll run."