Ben Linfoot comments on all the latest news lines that came out of Paul Nicholls' yard via a Zoom preview ahead of the 2021 Cheltenham Festival.
‘No comment’ was the official line from the 11-time champion trainer and, while that’s perfectly understandable on a Jockey Club-arranged Cheltenham Festival Zoom call, it would be great to hear such a successful and respected participant condemn the sickening image, that is now the subject of a IHRB investigation, on an individual basis.
There was to be none of that, but Paul Nicholls does have unique insight when it comes to top horses arriving from other yards.
Indeed, two of his horses with Cheltenham chances discussed below, Next Destination and Real Steel, came from Willie Mullins’ at the start of the current campaign, so he’s well placed to form a viewpoint on a horse like Envoi Allen moving to a new training environment two weeks before the Festival.
“It wouldn’t be ideal for horse or trainer,” Nicholls said.
“You wouldn’t want to be changing a horse’s diet so close to Cheltenham, a new routine, it’s a massive impact.
“There are lots of things you have to do to get it right. You could get an unsettled horse. You’d want to be on the same feed, the same hay, people do things so totally different.
“I had a lot of horses come from Willie’s and it’s taken them the best part of a year to get used to our routine and doing things differently – and it would be the same the other way around.
“It’s not going to be an advantage moving so close to Cheltenham, that’s for sure.”
Even though it’s the all-consuming beast that is the Cheltenham Festival dominating Paul Nicholls’ thoughts, by his own admission he’ll be taking a smaller team than he used to to Prestbury Park this year, with fewer big guns resulting in less pressure.
It’s all very different to the Kauto Star era of over 10 years ago, when that horse along with Denman, Master Minded and Big Buck’s contributed to his most successful period at the Festival, that famous quartet accounting for seven of his 12 winners at the meeting between 2007 and 2009 in a golden period for the Ditcheat handler.
“It’s a lot easier now,” Nicholls said. “Imagine the days when Kauto and Denman were taking each other on, you were expected to deliver, I used to feel the pressure then, I used to struggle with it to be honest with you.
“I feel it’s a privilege to have those big horses in the big races and it’s a nice challenge now.”
When he won five races in 2009 Nicholls sent 35 horses to Cheltenham and he had exactly the same number run at the meeting in 2016, when coming away with three victories.
Since then things have been different, though, with the size of his teams subsequently numbering at 25, 23, 24 and 18 in chronological order.
He’s looking at something in between the smallest and biggest of those recent squads again this time around, but, no matter the number, Nicholls always walks away from the week with a winner – he’s won at least one race at the Cheltenham Festival every year since 2003.
I’d wager something from the horses mentioned below keep that proud record going.
If Nicholls has one standout best chance at the Festival it’s Bravemansgame in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.
The six-year-old looks a real class act and the very fact he lines up in this race looks significant as it’s a trophy Nicholls has never won despite all those classy staying chasers that developed through novice hurdles coming through his hands.
Indeed, Nicholls has only ever had seven runners in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle before, with Denman and Rock On Ruby coming closest to winning with their second-place finishes in 2006 and 2011 respectively.
But this year, with Bravemansgame, he could finally break his duck in the race.
“I probably haven’t had too many good enough,” Nicholls said. “Denman was one who ran in it and he got beat in it, but you need horses good enough to run in these races or you are completely wasting your time.
“He’s just got the right profile, he’s won a Challow, a Grade One, where he was really strong from the back of the last, and each stepping stone he’s got closer to running in it so he deserves to take his chance.
“He worked nicely this morning and I’ve been really happy with his preparation. He’s a very relaxed horse, he’s not keen, he jumps and stays and a strong pace will suit him well. He’s a good ride and he’s a class horse.
“He’s improving physically all the time. The best of him will come when he jumps a fence, but he’s going into the race with a leading chance.”
“After Al Boum Photo they are very much much of a muchness,” says Nicholls, positively glowing about having a chance to really roll back the years in the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup with Frodon.
“We beat Santini in the King George and Santini is a shorter price than us which I don’t really get.
“Frodon’s always underestimated a little bit.
“I’ve been very lucky to win it four times with Kauto Star, Denman and See More Business, it’s a fantastic race and I’d love to win it again.”
Generally 14/1, Frodon is a bigger price than you would imagine for a nine-year-old King George winner that is in the form of his life and has won six times around Cheltenham.
Having run 30 times over fences and having graduated to the staying scene from shorter trips, the perception may well be that he will be done for either class or stamina or both when he faces the hill once again in what Nicholls describes as ‘the biggest race of his life.’
But his trainer is adamant he stays and thinks his course nous can be a potent weapon.
He said: “He won a handicap off top weight over 3m1f earlier in the season at Cheltenham and King George winners stay and end up winning Gold Cups.
“We ran in him last year’s Ryanair and he was just outpaced all the way and we decided this year we’d just stay over a longer trip.
“He’s in really good form, he worked beautifully this morning, he loves to be fresh and fit and he loves Cheltenham, he’s won there six times, and often on the last day the ground is decent which will suit him.
“It [course form] makes a massive difference it’s a real plus. He likes the track, the undulations, the turns. It’s a unique track, it doesn’t suit every horse, but he thrives on it. It’s a home game.
“This horse has got plenty of boot. Bryony knows him well enough, she was just saying this morning having worked him that she forgets how much of a turn of foot he has got.
“Nobody expects him to win the Gold Cup but if he did I wouldn’t be surprised. Nobody expected him to win a King George, but if you watch the replay he won very cosily and probably the wrong way around.”
Politologue moved noticeably well in last year’s Wincanton gallop before he won the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase – according to one press room colleague who didn’t then back him at 25/1 for the Festival.
Not many were there to see today’s Ditcheat Dozen put through their paces on the racecourse, but Nicholls helpfully posted the work on social media and it was Politologue who stood out again.
“It’s basically a good day out for them that I fit into their work programme,” says Nicholls.
“We do it every year, having a day out as part of their fitness. Politologue went with Bravemansgame, Real Steel, Frodon, Houx Gris, Soldier Of Love, Barbados Buck’s, Saint Sonnet, Amour De Nuit, Duc Des Genievres, Storm Arising and Threeunderthrufive.
“They were the 12 and they just had a lovely day out, Politologue loved bowling along in front.
“This year is his sixth Festival which is incredible and he was very impressive in his gallop this morning. He comes good at this time of year and he has a chance obviously.
“The ground was probably testing enough for him at Ascot, but he still ran to a very high level.
“Willie’s horse [Chacun Pour Soi] looks very smart but he’s never run at Cheltenham and he has to act on the track. You should never be afraid of one horse.”
Even in the age of information you’d be hard pressed to get a horse’s ‘change of routine’ on the racecard, but my ears usually prick up when I hear those three words - although it’s usually too late to profit.
Post-race winning interviews are usually where a horse’s sudden transformation is explained away by a few tweaks at home, so it could be worth noting down Real Steel’s altered regime ahead of his bid for the Ryanair Chase.
He’s a best of 25s for the race after being pulled up in the King George last time out, but Nicholls thinks he’s rectified what went wrong that day and points out how well he was travelling at the business end of last year’s Gold Cup, when he was still trained by Mullins.
“He ran in the King George at Christmas and if you watch the race he travelled into it like he was going to be involved and then stopped quickly – well it transpired that he bled.
“We’ve got him over that now, he looks good and we’ve changed our routine with him, so if we’ve got him right he’ll go into the race with a real chance.
“He ran very well in last year’s Gold Cup where they obviously didn’t go a great gallop, travelling into it and looking like he might win going to the last.
“Obviously he didn’t stay up the hill, but he’s not a stayer. I think this trip is right for him and he worked beautifully this morning.”
Of the decisions still to be made by Nicholls it seems Next Destination is one key player whose Cheltenham target will be a late ground dependent call – although he is leaning towards the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.
Malcolm Denmark’s horse has impressed this season as he made his debut for Nicholls from Mullins’ following a long lay-off and is two from two in novice chases, looking smart on both occasions.
He’s good, but fragile, and Nicholls will think long and hard before confirming him for either the Brown Advisory or the National Hunt Chase over further – which would be a no-go area on very soft ground.
“We really want to run him in the Brown Advisory and if it’s soft he’ll run in that race, but we put him in the National Hunt Chase as he stays very strongly and is a novice.
“It’s obviously a plus Harry [Cobden] can ride him now [in what is usually an amateur riders’ race] so he’s in both and we’ll make a decision.
“He’s had two chase runs, both in Grade Two races, jumped great, he stayed on strong, he’s got bundles of stamina and the softer the ground the better for him.
“Monkfish will be very tough to beat, but he’s in there with a right chance if the ground is soft. He’s got an option in the other one but this [the Brown Advisory] is the race we’ve been aiming him at.”
There were good words for Barbados Buck’s in the Albert Bartlett – ‘he’s so laid back and is progressing nicely’ – while Houx Gris (Boodles Fred Winter), Saint Sonnet ‘probably the Coral Cup’ and Magic Saint ‘we might step him up in trip in the Plate’ were all underlined with interest, too.
However, if I had to pick one Nicholls hope for the handicaps it would be Solo who is in the County Hurdle and the Martin Pipe.
Given Nicholls’ record in the County – he has won it four times with Sporazene, Desert Quest, American Trilogy and Lac Fontana – I hope he’s pointed at that race and his trainer only had words of encouragement for him after a trying season thus far.
“He’s obviously been a bit frustrating this year, but he’s not unlike Frodon and I think we’ll see the best of him when he goes chasing.
“It’s been a hard year as he was quite highly-rated at the start, but he’s slipped down the weights and he’s just been showing us some signs of late that he’s coming back to himself in the spring.
“He’s in at Kelso at the weekend for the Morebattle and he could end up running there, but he’s in the County, one of a few options, and we’ll do the right thing by him.”
Nicholls has a few things to weigh up with Solo, including a £100,000 bonus if the winner of the Morebattle goes onto win any race at the Cheltenham Festival.
Personally I’d like to see him go to the County fresh, as he bolted up in the Adonis at Kempton last year on the back of a break, a performance that earned him a BHA mark of 157.
Rated 141 now, the 33/1 available (Hills) about him for the County is tempting with those ‘signs of late’ in mind.