Cheltenham Festival tips: Mike Cattermole visits Paul Nicholls

Mike Cattermole on horses to catch his eye on a visit to Paul Nicholls' yard and whispers from a Festival Preview Night.

PAUL NICHOLLS NEVER TO BE WRITTEN OFF

Geoff Lester, my one-time Sporting Life mentor, and I were counting our lucky stars this week as we made our annual pre-Cheltenham pilgrimage down to Somerset to see Paul Nicholls.

Normally we do this in February but the advantage of leaving it a little later in the year this time was soon evident with some better and warmer weather.

It was indeed a glorious morning and Manor Farm Stables had a lovely, relaxed ambience about it. Paul's staff were in great form and so too, clearly, were the horses who all looked extremely well indeed with coats gleaming in the sun.

It has almost gone unnoticed that Nicholls, not Nicky Henderson, is the season's leading trainer going into the Cheltenham Festival with some astute placing of his horses, something that he does entirely unaided and rightly takes great pride in.

He is under no illusion, though. "That will all change with Buveur D'Air on Tuesday” he reasoned. "We just have to make sure we keep in touch with Nicky as best we can."

The Ditcheat Festival team this year will number just “15 or 16”. It has been much bigger in the past, of course. He explained: "There is no point in going there unless you’ve got a chance. There are plenty of good races and prize money away from Cheltenham. You just have to find the right opportunities for them."

Although realistic, I am sure Nicholls would be disappointed if he failed to add to his 41 Festival successes next week.

Topofthegame, especially, looked in superb condition and is bang on target for the Coral Cup next Wednesday. What a tall, imposing chestnut he is and he has clearly come out of his Sandown success very well indeed.

Click here to back Topofthegame for Cheltenham Festival glory with Sky Bet...

Topofthegame (right) stayed on well to win at Sandown
Topofthegame: Looks cherry-ripe for Cheltenham

Black Corton, who has emerged as an unlikely stable star this season, is totally the opposite, being diminutive but whose appetite for a jump and a fight has endeared him to all of the team at Ditcheat. There were no signs of anything other than good positive vibes about his upcoming task in the RSA Chase as he strode out on the bottom gallop.

We watched in awe as Harry Cobden, Sean Bowen, Bryony Frost and Alex Thorne schooled a few in the outdoor ring, with Le Prezien really impressing with his athleticism.

It was in this very ring just six years before when Paul asked Ruby Walsh on Kauto Star for “just one more” only for the superstar chaser to stand off too far, somersault and take a crashing fall. In spite of that, he did make it to the Gold Cup but was pulled up in what turned out to be his last race. (His trainer remains convinced that he would have won a third “Blue Riband” without that significant setback).

Chatting throughout a fascinating morning with Paul, right-hand man Clifford Baker and Brian Nicholls, father of the trainer and also an important part of the team down there, we came away convinced that Modus would run a big race in the JLT Novices’ Chase and that Movewiththetimes, also owned by JP McManus, was in great nick for either the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase, or the Stable Plate. Which race is still be to decided.

Politologue will take on Altior again but the trainer admitted that the high-class grey was not a million miles away from his best when soundly beaten by the Henderson superstar at Newbury.

LAST MINUTE PREVIEW NIGHT BITES

Not long to go now of course and I can't help believing that the ground is going to be pretty soft next week. Melted snow, more rain this weekend. I know that it drains well, but surely...

Anyway, I was on the panel at a couple of preview nights this week, one organised by Henrietta Knight for the Injured Jockeys Fund at the Corse Lawn Hotel (one-time haunt of the Hen’s great love, Terry Biddlecombe) in Gloucestershire.

No matter how much homework you have done or how much your mind is made up, you can always learn something new, especially when the other panel members, in this instance, were Hen herself alongside Jim (C4) McGrath and Alastair Down.

When Hen starts to talk horses, you get transfixed. She can see things that others will never see. For example, the photo of Douvan in the Racing Post the other day didn’t impress her – not the photo per se, but the disposition of the horse himself. Mind you, she loves Un De Sceaux.

And although I, and many others, may have been impressed with Saint Calvados’s jumping at Warwick the other day, Hen worries that Harry Whittington’s young star might just be a bit too bold for his own good around Cheltenham.

Jim is still the king of reading the form book as far as I am concerned and his musings on the handicaps included the thought that Mitchouka might have got off relatively leniently for her recent win at Fairyhouse and has therefore got to be on the shortlist for the Fred Winter.

Click on the image below to back Mitchouka for the Fred Winter with Sky Bet...

Davy Russell and Gordon Elliott
Davy Russell and Gordon Elliott

Alastair was in very bright form indeed and proved a handful for our long-suffering MC, Andrew Elliott. Al is mad keen on Sam Spinner for the Stayers’ Hurdle and was a little dismayed to hear that Jim made it one of the deepest races all week.

Amidst all the talk and mickey taking, I am pretty sure we all agreed that Samcro, Altior, Un De Sceaux and Laurina would be very hard to beat.

Then, on Tuesday night, Lizzie Kelly amused the West Berks Racing Club audience at Newbury by describing her intense love affair with Haydock Park (I am being ironic here).

However, she was sweet on her mounts, Coo Star Sivola in the Ultima Handicap Chase and Esprit De Somoza in the Fred Winter, but put me off Flying Tiger (which she doesn't ride) in the County Hurdle, explaining that he wants better ground. I remain puzzled by that, as I didn’t think he minded it soft.

Jamie Snowden, who was also with us, loves his Champion Bumper horse, Thebannerkingrebel, who is unbeaten in two starts. He was bought, before his Bangor win, by Sir Chips Keswick the chairman of Arsenal FC.

Snowden reckons that he – the horse that is, not Sir Chips - is a great each-way play at around 25/1.

Lizzie Kelly in action

DÉJÀ VU FOR DERBY COUNTY?

At Newbury that evening, I was keeping a nervous eye for updates on my mobile of how The Rams were doing away at QPR.

They were hanging onto a one-goal lead as the clock drew down and then it happened again. Yet another late equaliser meant that Derby have now drawn seven league matches since the turn of the year. They have won two and lost two.

It is a run that is depressingly familiar. So many times in recent seasons, Derby have been motoring along, seemingly with promotion to the Premier League firmly in their grasp, only for them to stutter and stumble in the closing stages.

It is not as if the manager is the same as before and neither too are most of the players. It can’t be a coincidence; I think it’s called pressure.

The local derby away at Forest on Sunday has not come at a good time!

CYCLING STILL IN A SORRY STATE

The findings of the select committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport were pretty damning for Team Sky and Sir Bradley Wiggins this week as they were accused of crossing the ethical line with the drugs they were using to enhance performance under the excuse of treating a medical condition.

Having just read Tyler Hamilton’s honest and compulsive insider account of the Lance Armstrong years, in his book "The Secret Race", I have concluded that the world of cycling is downright weird and it is clear that, even just a few years later, the boundaries of clean and unclean remain blurred.

If like me you are sceptical about the therapeutic use of drugs, then what are your views of those brave climbers like Sir Edmund Hillary who first conquered Everest back in the 1950s? Were they cheating by using oxygen tanks?

It is a fascinating debate.

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