Though he was reserving judgement until consulting the horse's owners, later in the week, it was hard to escape the impression here yesterday that Paul Nicholls is increasingly disposed to run Denman at Cheltenham on Saturday. Measuring a bird in the hand against two in the bush, the champion trainer sounded eager to get Denman's final Gold Cup rehearsal out of the way while he has the chance. In fact, he went so far as saying that he'd be "dead keen" to bring forward what is sure to prove a tense ritual, if getting the nod from Denman's co-owners, Paul Barber and Harry Findlay.
The original intention was to keep Denman for the Aon Chase at Newbury on 13 February, back at the scene of two famous wins in the Hennessy Gold Cup, but Nicholls is wary of another freeze intruding on his schedule. And the man charged with preparing Kauto Star and Denman for their momentous showdown is always anxious, nowadays, to ensure his biggest guns get to the Festival as fresh as possible.
"It wasn't really on the radar," Nicholls admitted. "But I've been amazed how quickly Denman has come to hand. He did a really good bit of work on Saturday, by his standards, and he's ready to run. Paul [Barber] has been keen on Newbury, all along, because the horse has always done so well round there. And this Cheltenham meeting does have a history of bad ground. The last thing we would want to do is give him a really hard race. But if we were to get a dry week, it might make sense."
Nicholls admitted himself tempted by the idea of giving Denman an extra fortnight to freshen up before the Festival. "If you do wait for Newbury, and the weather starts being a problem, you'd be getting very close to Cheltenham," he acknowledged.
While Denman might put plenty on the gate on Saturday, he would doubtless have the reverse effect on the four-legged turnout for the Argento Chase. Only 11 entries were made yesterday, including two others by Nicholls, and most of them would presumably sooner wait for the Aon, should a change of target for Denman be confirmed.
Nicholls endured a couple of short-priced reverses on a dank afternoon here, both in races won by Alan King, enjoying an overdue resurgence after a dispiriting season. But Nicholls was not remotely perturbed to see Tricky Trickster beaten at 4-11 in a novice hurdle, his first start for the stable since changing hands for 320,000 guineas.
Tricky Trickster had last been seen running away with the National Hunt Chase at the Festival, when trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, and William Hill decided his failure to get to grips with Chamirey in no way diminished his prospects for the John Smith's Grand National. He remains 16-1 favourite.
Nicholls came here because he did not want to run him over fences before the Aintree weights are published, on 16 February. "That was absolutely perfect," he insisted. "Just what I expected. He's not fully fit, and not the type to go over hurdles round a tight track like this. It's just given him a nice blow, and he's going to improve enormously. We're training him for one race, so we might as well try to do it properly. I didn't have him right in the autumn, and suspect he's a spring horse really."
Tricky Trickster is likely to wait only four days after the publication of the National weights before returning to fences, at either Wincanton or Haydock, and could well join Denman and Kauto Star in the Gold Cup after that.
Nicholls saddled The Nightingale to make a striking debut over fences in the next race, and it is easy to envisage this one making his presence felt at the Festival, perhaps in the Jewson Novices' Chase. "He finished distressed in his final two races last season, so we gave him a breathing op and some time off," Nicholls said. "That should do his confidence a lot of good, because he was in a pretty bad way last time he went racing. He wasn't 100 per cent fit and should improve quite a bit, and I suspect he'd want a bit farther, too."
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Nap Provost (2.20 Southwell)
Finished stone last three times running last summer before disappearing for three months, but showed immediate signs of revival on his return over course and distance last month. Back on a winning mark for a stable in form.
Next best Pliny (1.40 Leicester)
Significantly well backed on his first start of the season, only to be brought down at halfway. Had laid down solid foundations last winter and should relish a test of stamina.
One to watch Grands Crus (D E Pipe) started favourite for an Aintree bumper last winter but never really showed why until sent off at 66-1 for his hurdling debut at Taunton last week, pulling a long way clear of the third in pursuit of a useful winner.
Where the money's going Coral make Solwhit 6-4 to start favourite for a muddled Smurfit Champion Hurdle, from Zaynar on 13-8 and Go Native on 9-2.