Nicholls ambitious for King

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Leopardstown on Sunday is a potential watershed in the training career of Paul Nicholls and an occasion which will also rekindle memories of the zenith and gutter of the man's riding career.

As a jockey whose time in the saddle filled the 1980s with 130 winners, Nicholls's greatest moment came in the Vincent O'Brien Gold Cup of 1988, which he won on Playschool. Just a few weeks later the tears were driven by a different emotion, when Playschool was a fence-thumping losing favourite in the Gold Cup. To this day, Nicholls believes his partner was a pharmaceutically impaired athlete that March afternoon.

Nicholls returns to Leopardstown at the weekend to the same race but a different title - the Hennessy Gold Cup - with the vehicle of his training career still ticking over at the crossroads. It will soon turn either on to the motorway or down a cul-de-sac.

Since he was first granted a licence in 1991, the 34-year-old has promised (some of the time from his own lips) to become a leading figure in the game and his totals are pleasingly progressive. Last year Nicholls totalled his best return of 53 winners and his 39 successes thus far this campaign place him in fifth place in the trainers' championship. Now he needs one big horse, one big race.

Two chances have presented themselves this season and both will travel from the Manor Farm Stables near Shepton Mallet tomorrow to rendezvous at Liverpool with Jodami and The Grey Monk before travelling to Ireland. Belmont King will run in the big race, while See More Business again tackles Dorans Pride, in the Scalp Novices' Chase.

When the pair met at Fairyhouse last month, Dorans Pride was a length to the good, but there are reasons to believe the form could be overturned. See More Business is a much more callow performer, and he is now guided by the quisling Richard Dunwoody, who rode Dorans Pride last time

"Obviously Dorans Pride is going to take a deal of beating but a length isn't a great deal," Nicholls said yesterday. "We ran too free that day and jumped a little bit novicey. It was the first time he had been off the bridle in his life so we were pleased with the way he kept going to the line. He thought it was all a big game."

If See More Business follows the plot on Sunday he could take in next month's Racing Post Chase before a foray in the Royal Sun Alliance Chase at the Festival. Belmont King's possible mission is the big one, the Gold Cup, which is unlikely to be any more rigorous than his weekend assignment. As well as his travelling companions from Merseyside, Belmont King has such as Danoli and Imperial Call ranged against him. The latter was backed significantly for both Leopardstown and Cheltenham with Ladbrokes yesterday, while the Tote cut The Grey Monk to 7-2 (from 9-2) for Sunday.

Those wishing to support Belmont King ante-post have hardly been queueing around the block this week, but at least the nine-year-old will not fail for course knowledge. The gelding was sent over to Somerset at the end of a 1994-95 season that saw him collect the valuable Findus Chase at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival.

Belmont King felt the emigration had taken so much out of him that he promptly rolled over and became cast in his new box at Manor Farm. A bruised tendon and a year off ensued, though his victorious return in the Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow last month suggested the absence had not dulled the animal's competitive instincts. "Because he missed last year we never got to find out how good he is," Nicholls said.

"I thought he'd go well [at Chepstow], but I didn't think he'd win and he's done nothing but improve since. He is up against it on Sunday against the best at level weights, but you've got to be positive in this game, because if you don't attack you don't win. If I thought he wasn't good enough he wouldn't be going there, and as I'd like to think he was a Gold Cup horse I'm sure he'll run a big race on Sunday. He's worked very, very well this week.

"Sunday will tell us whether to go for the Cheltenham Gold Cup with him before the Grand National, or whether we go to the Greenalls Gold Cup [at Haydock] on the way to Aintree." It will also tell us a little more about Paul Nicholls.