Racing: Le Duc ready to confirm Nicholls' belief

First big meeting of the National Hunt season brings an opportunity for a trainer to tighten his grip on the Independent Novices' Chase
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The drumbeats are sounding and the massed ranks are assembling for the first big National Hunt congregation of the year at Cheltenham this weekend.

It is a meeting well know for its late fireworks, not least in this Sunday's contest for fast, young things, the Independent Newspaper Novices' Chase.

It has been a blessed Grade Two contest under the present sponsorship which began in the millennium. The first winner has gone on to become a beacon of the sport, the horse who may one day match Arkle and Red Rum as a beast who transfers into the popular lexicon.

Best Mate is not there yet, but he is closer than he was to the rest of the field on that November day three years ago. The winning margin was 18 lengths.

The following season, the Independent race completed a five-timer for Seebald, the property of Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler. He had only the mighty Moscow Flyer in front in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at the Festival.

Twelve months on, that race fell to another Independent winner, Azertyuiop. Crazy name, crazy amount of ability. That was Paul Nicholls's third win in the race, or its equivalent, following the exploits of Fadalko and Captain Khedive in recent years. Now he is in with another considerable shout.

It would be quite right to observe that the Ditcheat trainer has a stranglehold on the Independent Chase this year. In fact, the race has probably already passed out.

In the unlikely event that the weather does not break, Nicholls will be represented by the hat-trick seeking Santenay. But if, as predicted, the rains come from the heavens then Nicholls has two horses which may prove to have the same origins, Le Duc and Thisthatandtother. They are a pair for whom you have to lift the gaze to imagine their limit.

"If we get decent ground it looks like they'll both have to run," Nicholls said yesterday. "Both owners, quite rightly, want to go. I don't have a problem with that. It's a nice problem to have if you like.

"It might seem like madness to run them against each other, but there aren't that many really good valuable novice chases around. If you've got a decent novice this is the obvious early-season target."

Le Duc and Thisthatandtother not only have the capacity to quicken the pulse, they can actually accelerate the entire body's recovery rate. Proof of this phenomenon will be the presence of Ruby Walsh in the Cotswolds this week. The Irish jockey has been horse de combat for some weeks now, but nothing assists recuperation better than the tantalising prospect of hooking up with talented horses. Especially, talented young ones.

Yet, while they may be fairly matched in ability, the two go about their jobs in quite different manner. "Le Duc is a very laid-back sort of work horse," Nicholls says. "He's certainly no flying machine at home. You'd have no idea how much he had left in the locker. He'll never, ever be flamboyant and would win a bad race by just as much as he would win a good race. I like those sort of horses because they last for ever. They look after themselves."

Le Duc, though, did not look after anyone early last season. Not his trainer, jockey or owner, and especially not those who backed him. The ex-French horse was a serial under-achiever until he ran in the big four-year-old novices' race at the Grand National meeting. He was 33-1 that day, so his regular near-downtrodden supporters could have repaired all previous damage in one hit. For once the slips with his name on stopped hitting betting shop floors.

Nicholls, as you might imagine, is a great defender of his young horse. One bad word and you could have his gloves slapping across your chops. "I admit he always looks a bit of a monkey and I did manage to get him beat at 1-4 in an ordinary race at Hereford," the trainer says. "But he's kept on improving physically and gets the four-year-old's allowance. I like him."

And then there is the other other one. "Thisthatandtother did nothing wrong last season," Nicholls says. "He won the Tolworth Hurdle and was second to Rhinestone Cowboy [in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton]. He jumped fantastically well at Bangor on his chasing debut, but he's another who has won a soft race to start and he's got a lot to prove.

"He's been backward and that's why we've not got him going until quite late. He did well last year, but he has always been a little like Azertyuiop in that whatever he achieved over hurdles was only going to be a prelude for a chasing career. I'd looked forward to the day he went chasing for some time. I always rated Azertyuiop and I like these horses. The difference is that they've got to prove it." Sunday is the true beginning.

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