Denman can breathe easily but Nicholls cannot rest

With his chief rival in the race for this season's trainers' championship apparently cruising in his slipstream waiting to pounce, Paul Nicholls will be looking for every edge on the road to the arena where pickings are richest, the Cheltenham Festival. Yesterday he revealed one that may prove decisively sharp; Denman, perceived by the betting market as his powerful stable's best hope for the Gold Cup, has had surgery to enable him to breathe more easily under pressure.

The massive 11-year-old, winner of the Gold Cup three years ago, has had a chequered physiological history. As a young horse in Ireland, before he joined Nicholls, he had one corrective operation on his airway, to open up his larynx; then, after winning his Cheltenham crown, he was out of action for nearly a year with cardiac problems.

His vets have now cauterised the soft palate at the back of his throat, a technique which should tighten up any floppy membranes and allow a better flow of vital oxygen to aid him at the sharp end of any forthcoming battle. The surgery took place after Denman finished third in the Hennessy Gold Cup in November on his most recent run. "Then, and in last year's Gold Cup as well, I didn't think he was finishing the races as well as he could," said Nicholls. "I just hope that the operation allows him to finish off a little better and so improve his performance slightly."

Airway surgery can be particularly effective in helping a heavyweight athlete like Denman or, indeed, his stablemate Master Minded, who has shown its benefits this term. And even a little improvement would put Denman right in the Gold Cup reckoning, despite his advancing years. His performance at Newbury, under a crushing weight, was a top-class effort and his record at Cheltenham stands the closest inspection.

He has run at the track seven times, for four wins and three seconds. As a novice hurdler, he won the Challow and beat all bar Nicanor in the Royal & SunAlliance. As a novice over fences, he beat last year's Grand National winner Don't Push It in a warm-up contest and then Snowy Morning (later third in a National) in the Royal & SunAlliance Chase. As a senior, he has run in the last three Gold Cups, finishing second to Kauto Star and then Imperial Commander after his victory.

Yesterday he continued his build-up to the Gold Cup, now just 25 days away, by joining a clutch of other Festival-bound Manor Farm inmates on an awayday to Wincanton racecourse. With big-race jockey Sam Thomas in the saddle he produced a solid workout alongside champion staying hurdler Big Buck's, due to defend his World Hurdle crown. Also in the party were Poquelin, favourite for the Ryanair Chase, and Ghizao, bound for the Arkle Trophy.

"They all had a nice day out," added Nicholls, "and we were very pleased with the way it all went." This morning at Ditcheat, Somerset, the five-times champion trainer will parade his formidable Cheltenham team at his annual pre-Festival media morning. On Thursday, on the Lambourn Downs in Berkshire, it will be the turn of Nicky Henderson, who has equally impressive firepower for the £5m Cotswolds extravaganza.

By close of play yesterday Henderson was less than £170,000 behind Nicholls in the title race, the pair clear of the rest, with a four-timer at Ascot on Saturday advertising the rude health of his elite string. Highest-profile among them was Ryanair Chase-bound Riverside Theatre, whose success in the Ascot Chase – a contest marred by a fatal injury to the Nicholls-trained Pride Of Dulcote – can be seen as a compliment to his stablemate and King George VI Chase conqueror Long Run, second favourite behind Imperial Commander for the Gold Cup.

It may be nip and tuck at the top of the domestic trainers' table; the same cannot be said in Ireland, where Willie Mullins is a distance clear of his nearest pursuer, Noel Meade. The Mullins horses were in typical form at Naas yesterday; four of them won, notably Golden Silver, who confirmed his ticket to the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Appropriately enough on an FA Cup weekend, the football theme continued yesterday at Sedgefield, where Desert Cry made it a double for the Everton manager, David Moyes. On Saturday at Haydock, Silver By Nature carried the colours of St Johnstone's chairman, Geoff Brown, to victory in the Grand National Trial, but Sir Alex Ferguson and Harry Redknapp had to settle for seconds on Friday, with What A Friend and Bygones In Brid respectively.

Turf account

* Chris McGrath's Nap

Rolecarr (3.10 Carlisle)Is rising in the ratings but is relatively lightly raced and may still have improvement to come, and certainly relishes heavy conditions.

* Next best

Storming Gale (2.10 Carlisle) Well-regarded enough to have a Cheltenham novices' entry and had enough in hand in his hurdles debutvictory to suggest he can cope with his penalty here.

* One to watch

Mamlook (David Pipe)Was undone by desperate ground at demanding Exeter on his second effort over fences and should not be forgotten should livelier conditions prevail at Cheltenham.

* Where the money's going

Novice Back In Focus made the greatest impression at the weekend on his hurdling debut. The Irish point winner was cut from 66-1 to 8-1 favourite for the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at the Festival after his wide-margin victory at Haydock from odds-on Court In Motion.