It was the galacticos the photographers were waiting for, Master Minded and Denman and Kauto Star, three champion steeplechasers saved for the end of the parade. But no less significant than these paragons, perhaps, was the paradigm – the very first horse led out, as Paul Nicholls went through the strongest team of Cheltenham Festival contenders anywhere in Britain.
For one of the owners of What A Friend is Sir Alex Ferguson, whose model for sustainable success is being closely followed by the champion trainer. Nicholls knows that the wheel must keep turning, that the squad needs not just Giggs and Ronaldo, but the next generation, too, a Rafael Da Silva or Danny Welbeck. They cannot all make the grade, but together they are cogs in the cycle of excellence.
Every year, when Nicholls opens his stable to the media the refrain is the same. One after another, he introduces big, raw novice hurdlers with a respectable chance at the Festival. And then, as they are led away, he adds: “But whatever he does there, he’s going to make a lovely chaser next season.”
Denman is the perfect template having finished second to Nicanor over hurdles at the 2006 Festival before returning to win his novice championship over fences and then, last year, the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. Nicholls also saddled Kauto Star and Neptune Collonges to finish second and third, and the trio may yet be joined this time by Star De Mohaison. But Nicholls only has such strength in depth because he is always one step ahead. Big Buck’s goes for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle next month, but is already viewed as a Gold Cup candidate in 2010. Likewise, What A Friend.
Ferguson’s colours in the race would be a terrific stimulus to outside curiosity and, listening to his trainer, it seems a tangible prospect. “He has improved enormously, and the best is yet to come,” Nicholls declared. “I can definitely see him lining up in the Gold Cup next year. He certainly deserves to be at the head of the betting on the RSA Chase. He wants to be fresh, which is why I haven’t run him since he won at Cheltenham in December. He jumps great, the form’s in the book, and I’m very happy with his prep.”
The stable jockey, Ruby Walsh, has the option of riding Cooldine for his Irish patron, Willie Mullins. “I’m not actually too bothered, because Sam Thomas has won on him twice,” Nicholls said. “Ruby’s got to keep everyone happy and we all try to work together.”
He has no doubt that Walsh will ride Tatenen in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy, and Christian Williams – who has clearly retrieved parity with Thomas, at the very least, in the jockeys’ pecking order here – will duly keep the ride on the stable’s other candidate, I’msingingtheblues. Nicholls felt Thomas might have been more positive when Tatenen was beaten at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting.
“But the ground probably wasn’t as soft as he likes, and he didn’t take to the travelling too well, either,” Nicholls said. “We have freshened him up since, and he did a great piece of work this morning. He’s definitely one of our leading chances at the meeting. But I’msingingtheblues jumps and stays very well, and has done nothing but improve all season.”
Nicholls expects to end up with around 30 Festival runners, including several members of the youth team. He has candidates for all four novice hurdles, albeit Hebridean (JCB Triumph) and Conflict Of Interest (William Hill Supreme) must first earn their passage at Kempton on Saturday.
The Nightingale is in the classic Nicholls mould. “He’s a dark horse, one I think an awful lot of,” he said. “I can definitely see him in the first six in the Ballymore Properties Novices’ Hurdle, but he’ll make a lovely chaser next season. He had a horrific fall at Exeter in the autumn but had an easy win next time and we’ve kept him for a spring campaign since.”
Pride Of Dulcote has also caused the odd drama, having put Walsh in hospital at Cheltenham in November. “He’s another who’s made for fences, but he has been impressive over hurdles and will go for the Albert Bartlett over three miles,” Nicholls said. “I think Ruby has ridden him three times, and finished up on the deck three times, so whether he’ll want to ride him in the race before the Gold Cup remains to be seen! Knowing Ruby, if he thinks he can win, you can be sure he’ll be riding.”
Walsh will again ride Kauto Star in the Gold Cup, Denman having disappointed on his comeback at Kempton. “It might be that after the problems he’s had, he’ll need another summer to get back to where he was last year,” Nicholls said. “But his day out at Kempton has brought him on enormously. I knew a right-handed track wouldn’t be ideal, it was very dead ground, and he obviously wasn’t as ready as I thought. He’s never been a flying machine at home, so you had to go into the race in the dark. Initially I was disappointed, but it does seem to have made a big difference, mentally and physically.”
Then there is Celestial Halo, his “first real live chance” in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, and as a spring horse apparently thriving since his win at Sandown last month. Ferguson, in other words, is by no means the only manager who will be campaigning on every front this spring.