Master in charge of Walsh's Champion plan
This could be one of those occasions when you can't see the trees for the wood. The showdown between Kauto Star and Denman, three weeks tomorrow, so dominates the Cheltenham agenda this year that it would be easy to overlook the mind-boggling depth of their trainer's Festival challenge.
After parading 25 horses for the cameras yesterday morning, Paul Nicholls acknowledged that he has probably assembled his "strongest team ever". Two of them, Twist Magic and Master Minded, dispute favouritism for the meeting's other championship steeplechase, but even they can only audition for a supporting role.
A lot of ink must pass under the bridge before the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, however. And once Nicholls had confirmed that all was well with Kauto Star, after his fleeting lameness over the weekend, this instead became the proper moment to consider horses that would be stars in almost every other yard.
The champion trainer indicated that his stable jockey, Ruby Walsh, will come down in favour of Master Minded in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, with Sam Thomas on Twist Magic. Both horses have established their eligibility this winter by beating last year's winner, Voy Por Ustedes, but there is no mistaking the sense that Master Minded – who arrived from France last summer – is progressing with almost indecent haste.
"He had been doing some sensational work before he won at Newbury the other day," Nicholls said. "And I think he has improved again since, enormously so. I made a pig's ear of running Twist Magic on very testing going at Ascot. But I have always thought him a spring horse. He loves better ground, and I hope Fair Along and Tamarinbleu run, because they would go a real good gallop and that would suit both my horses."
The stable's steeplechasing hegemony has its roots in the perennial renewal of its raw materials. Time and again, Nicholls introduced young hurdlers such as Breedsbreeze or Chapoturgeon as "a cracking prospect for fences this time next year".
Sure enough, the success over hurdles of Noland at the 2006 Festival was only a prelude to his date with destiny in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy.
After missing last season with injury, Noland made an immaculate chasing debut at Folkestone last month and is likely to warm up for the Festival at Sandown tomorrow. "He picked up a bit of a bug at Folkestone but he's back in tip-top form now," Nicholls observed.
"I hope the ground will be all right for him to go to Sandown, because I'm very keen to get a run into him over an undulating track. I'm sure if we get him to Cheltenham in top shape he will be the one to beat."
His leading hope for the Royal and SunAlliance Chase appears to be Denman's brother, Silverburn, a winner at Sandown last time. "I think he has an outstanding chance," Nicholls said. "I know he seemed a bit disappointing at Kempton on Boxing Day, but it was Ruby's first ride back after his injury and he might ride a bit differently another time. I just think he got caught a bit flat-footed off a slow pace, and I'm convinced that he will stay three miles. I don't think we've ever had him better."
Among the hurdlers, Nicholls gave an auspicious mention to I'msingingtheblues in the County Hurdle but commends Celestial Halo as the best value of all. "I see he went out in the Triumph Hurdle betting after he got beat at Doncaster," he said.
"But I was probably guilty of running him a bit short. I was trying to pinch a race with him, I'd backed off him after he won at Newbury. It didn't work out, but he has improved enormously since, and I still think he'll run a really big race at Cheltenham."
It says everything about his stable that Nicholls could well claim the third tier of the podium in the Gold Cup as well. Star De Mohaison remains a possible runner, albeit he has been held up with "a few niggling problems" since a solid resumption over hurdles on New Year's Day, while Neptune Collonges earned his chance when outclassing his rivals at Wincanton last Saturday.
"Star De Mohaison is a horse we haven't seen the best of," he said. "But if we're not happy with him, he'll wait for Aintree. Neptune Collonges deserves his place in the field and could well get placed. My only suspicion is that some of his better form is on flatter tracks."
As for Kauto Star, he was reshod yesterday morning and cantered blithely away. "He's not like Denman," Nicholls said. "Denman puts everything into it, and then needs a lot of time to get back again. He had a quiet week after winning at Newbury, and is just stepping up his work again. But Kauto Star could run again a week after a race, without doing any work in between."
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