Paul Nicholls has drawn a blank at the last two Cheltenham Festivals, but could he get back amongst the winners this year with Hermes Allen leading out the Ditcheat squad?
While Willie Mullins had half of his yard running at the Dublin Racing Festival, it was a low-key weekend for Paul Nicholls.
The 13-time British Champion Trainer had decided against running anything at Leopardstown, no doubt stung by the demoralising defeats for Frodon and Greaneteen the year before, and had just the three winners all weekend at Sandown and Musselburgh.
Given the right situation, Nicholls would have no qualms about going over to Ireland, of course. In 2009 he won the Irish Gold Cup with his Cheltenham Gold Cup third string, Neptune Collonges, who was three from four in Irish Grade 1s by the end of his career. Nicholls has plundered 11 Grade 1s at the Punchestown Festival, too.
But right now his focus will be on the Cheltenham Festival – and specifically finding a winner at the meeting. It’s a week that his whole season used to revolve around, but it was reduced to a forgettable mess last year when he sent out his smallest team in 22 years.
He finished 0/9, his best result Bell Ex One, a 28/1 third in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, and washout Wednesday saw Stage Star pulled-up and Bravemansgame pulled out at the 11th hour due to the deteriorating ground.
If you needed any more evidence for Cheltenham not being the be all and end all for Nicholls, this was it, but last year’s blank was his second successive Festival without a winner and he has now saddled 45 horses since he last won at the meeting with Politologue in the 2020 Queen Mother Champion Chase.
That’s some cold streak for a trainer of Nicholls’ stature and another sign of the times for British trainers competing against the might of Ireland – and specifically Mullins – as if he or they needed any reminding.
But it will hurt. Nicholls had previously found a Cheltenham Festival winner for 18 successive years between 2003 and 2020, training 28 of his 46 meeting winners in that golden period from 2004 to 2012, the exact timeframe the legendary Kauto Star was in training at Ditcheat.
While the DRF has quickly become the last port of call for Mullins to find another Cheltenham horse or seven, Nicholls has long used the Betfair Hurdle card at Newbury this weekend as a Festival launchpad.
Who can forget 2008 when he had a four-timer on the card including Denman’s final race before his Gold Cup win and the startling emergence of Master Minded, who burst onto the scene with a sparkling Game Spirit win, the pre-cursor to his 19-length victory in his first Champion Chase.
Nobody is expecting Nicholls to pull a Master Minded-shaped rabbit out of his Newbury hat these days, but he does have some horses running this weekend who could punch an unexpected ticket to Cheltenham; Hitman for the Ryanair, for instance, or McFabulous the Brown Advisory.
It looks a more obvious chance for Greaneteen, too, to press home his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase claims after he missed last year’s race following the DRF flop.
The Champion Chase has been blown wide open by events at Cheltenham and Leopardstown the last two weekends, but Greaneteen has looked in good nick in all three assignments since that below-par run at Dublin and his one previous go in the Queen Mother produced a close-up, staying-on fourth.
At 14/1 he’s back in the Champion Chase frame and those odds could well shorten a touch if he comes through what looks a very good opportunity for him in the Betfair Exchange Game Spirit Stakes on Saturday.
Watch out for Nicholls’ horses in the day’s feature, the Betfair Hurdle, as well, as both Hacker Des Places and Rubaud might well have the County Hurdle on their agendas if they show up well in what is usually one of the most fiercely-competitive handicaps of the season. Crucially, both look well equipped to deal with the forecast good or better ground.
Judging by previous Saturdays this season, it would be no surprise if Nicholls dominates the headlines again at Newbury this weekend.
If we say the season proper started on October 1, his Saturday strike-rate this campaign is 30 winners from 113 at 26.55%, and he’s had a double or better at nine Saturday meetings in that period.
That’s nothing new for a master trainer and placer but in recent seasons that week-to-week domination has mattered little when it comes to Cheltenham. And his Festival squad again this year is more likely to resemble his teams of 2020 and 2021, number-wise at least, at around the 20 mark, rather than the 30-plus horses he used to take in the aforementioned Kauto Star era.
Heading it will be Hermes Allen, an 11/4 chance for the Ballymore. He’ll be aiming to break the curse of Challow Hurdle winners who are now 0/19 in the Ballymore following the reversals of stablemates Bravemansgame and Stage Star the last few years.
Nicholls will be hoping the Irish challenge isn’t quite as strong as it has been in this division, but at least his horse doesn’t look a one-dimensional mud lover like so many Challow Hurdle winners have been in the past.
He looks the real deal, his Challow form already boosted by Passing Well and Kilbeg King, who were miles behind him at Newbury and, unlike Bravemansgame and Stage Star before him, he’s already proven at Cheltenham.
As Festival flag-bearers go he’s not a bad one but a lot is resting on his shoulders. Bravemansgame at 8/1 for the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup, Tahmuras at 10/1 for the Sky Bet Supreme and Stage Star at 12/1 for the Turners are his next best-fancied chances in the Grade 1s.
A few others are on the periphery, but it’s those Saturday handicappers that he might need to step up in races like the Fred Winter, Grand Annual and County Hurdle if Hermes Allen doesn’t do the business.
It’s not going to be easy for Nicholls to get off the Festival cold list, then, but it’s unusual to keep such a good trainer down for this long. Here’s hoping he can conjure one or two up to beat the Irish, as the Festival could do with a hearty celebration from a man who used to train Cheltenham winners for fun.
February 1 - What are the main Dublin Racing Festival pointers?
January 25 - Trials Day: Who will be the Festival plunge horse?
January 18 - Can Dan Skelton step up at this year's Festival?
January 11 - Who is Willie's Sporting Life Arkle number one?
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