Now a successful trainer, Nicholls saddles the favourite, See More Business, for Thursday's 71st running of chasing's blue riband. And the eight-year- old former point-to-pointer, owned jointly by Paul Barber and John Keighley, can set the record straight.
His credentials are hard to fault; he is unbeaten in his last three races and was particularly impressive last time out in the Gold Cup dress rehearsal, the Pillar Properties Chase, when he recovered from a bad mistake to produce a surge up the Cheltenham hill to beat two of Thursday's rivals, Cyborgo and Rough Quest. His rider, Timmy Murphy, may lack big-time experience but he has formed a good relationship with the eight-year-old.
It is hard to desert the leading Irish contender, Dorans Pride, who beat See More Business twice last season before running third in the Gold Cup, an excellent performance for a novice. The mount of Richard Dunwoody, he has only one blip on his record this term and is sure to run a big race again.
The 10-year-old, a former Stayers' Hurdle winner, is a thoroughly seasoned performer with 32 outings under his girth. But See More Business, two years his junior and about to face only his 12th race, is still on the upgrade. If the ground comes up very soft then Cyborgo, another progressive eight-year-old, will come into the reckoning. Cool Dawn can prove the best long-shot.
It may seem odd, but Europe's outstanding Flat sire, Sadler's Wells, may be in danger of siring a winner of the Champion Hurdle before one of the Derby. His son Istabraq - whose dam, ironically, has produced an Epsom hero, Secreto - has long dominated the market for Tuesday's feature.
The winner of the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle last year, when he landed some goodly bets for his owner, JP McManus, he comes to Cheltenham on a 10-timer. The latest of the six-year-old's four wins this season was a bit of a struggle on boggy ground against the leading Irish novice His Song (the value of which will be clearer after he contests the meeting's opening race, the Supreme Novices Hurdle) but he will have been honed to perfection by Aidan O'Brien since.
His would be an emotional win. John Durkan spotted Istabraq as a potential hurdler and bought him for 38,000gns at the Newmarket sales as a Sheikh Hamdan reject and would have trained him. Durkan died of leukaemia only a few weeks ago.
The optimum trip for Istabraq, often overshadowed as a physical specimen by jump-bred types in the parade ring, may be further than the two miles of the Champion Hurdle, but a strong pace - virtually guaranteed with the largest field for some years - and forecast easy ground should suit him ideally. On St Patrick's Day, he can break Charlie Swan's duck in the race to become Ireland's first champion since Dawn Run 14 years ago.
The pick of the home side, and a worthy rival, should be the Richard Rowe-trained I'm Supposin, another Flat-bred six-year-old. The entire ran a blinder in fourth last year on only his third outing over hurdles, but has taken time since to recover from minor ankle surgery. But 17 days ago at Wincanton he put himself right back in the reckoning with a 19- length defeat of the in-form Master Beveled. He is the mount of Dunwoody, who has the best Festival record (17 winners and counting) of any now riding.
The best of the longer shots may be McManus's other colourbearer, Grimes, from Christy Roche's stable, and Martin Pipe's reformed Pridwell.
Britain's top novice hurdler, French Holly, sidesteps the Champion in favour of the Royal & SunAlliance, but however he fares (Erintante may take advantage of any lapses in his jumping) his stablemate Paddy's Return should prove himself the long-distance champion in the Stayers' Hurdle on Thursday. The six-year-old, winner of the Triumph Hurdle two years ago, trounced Pridwell in December, and can be forgiven his subsequent defeat by Ocean Hawk in a tactical affair at Haydock.
Of all the races at the meeting, favourites have the best record in Wednesday's Queen Mother Champion Chase. Seven of the past 16 have won, and Ask Tom can add to the tally at the expense of One Man.
The little streetfighter Kadastrof would win the Arkle Chase if tenacity and personality were the only criteria involved, but two of his three defeats this season came at Towcester and Sandown, tracks with stiff uphill finishes, and the benefit of the nagging doubt thus planted goes to Edelweis Du Moulin.
The Royal & SunAlliance Chase is thought to be a formality for Ireland's rising chasing star Florida Pearl, whose connections recently turned down an offer of more than pounds 300,000. But in one of the meeting's toughest events the more experienced mare Fiddling The Facts can provide an upset.
Tuesday: 2.00: Walk On Mix. 2.35: EDELWEIS DU MOULIN (nap). 3.15: Istabraq. 3.55: River Mandate. 4.30: Time For A Run. 5.05: Tompetoo.
Wednesday: 2.00: French Holly. 2.35: ASK TOM (nap). 3.15: Buckhouse Boy. 3.55: Fiddling The Facts. 4.30: Farfadet V. 5.05: Monnaie Forte. 5.40: Indian Spring.
Thursday: 2.00: Iron County Xmas. 2.35: PADDY'S RETURN (nap). 3.15 See More Business. 3.55: Teeton Mill. 4.30: Edredon Bleu. 5.05: Jack Doyle. 5.40: Gatflax.Reuse content