Nicholls shapes his plans to fit Bay's eccentric contours

 

Given that awards and judgements seem to be a natural feature of the turn of a year, surely the statisticians at the sport's ratings bible Timeform can take the opportunity to hand out a bit of justice with the removal of one of their pejorative gongs. For the past four seasons the symbol for unreliability – a periwig squiggle – has accompanied their annual essays on the classy but enigmatic Tidal Bay.

Sure, the old recidivist, whose talent has on many an occasion seemed to exceed his enthusiasm, may have earned his black mark. But in view of the 11-year-old's record since making the transfer from the warned-off Howard Johnson to the champion trainer Paul Nicholls, perhaps it is time for a rethink.

Horses are rarely innately bloody-minded, but physical vicissitudes can make effort uncomfortable, resulting in a lack of wholehearted co-operation. And with a change of management and regime and a full-scale MOT, Tidal Bay is now able to express his talent without negative expectations and has gone from Hyde to Jekyll.

In his last four runs, he has won what used to be the Whitbread Gold Cup, a Grade Two staying hurdle at Wetherby, finished second under top weight in the Hennessy Gold Cup and, three days ago, took the Grade One Lexus Chase at Leopardstown. He still appears to have some foibles – he needs to be ridden with restraint and presented in the finish as late as possible – but there was no doubting his determination at Leopardstown as he answered Ruby Walsh's call to thrust himself between Ireland's best and put his head in front in the final stride.

Tidal Bay's victory and his rejuvenation have brought a deal of professional and personal pleasure to Nicholls and the plan he has formulated for the Graham Wylie-owned gelding is one worthy of his quirks. The horse is now in the Gold Cup reckoning, but the alterative Festival scenario is to revert to the smaller obstacles for a tilt at the World Hurdle, followed by a trip to Aintree for the Grand National.

"That would be unorthodox," admitted Nicholls yesterday, "but he's the one horse who could do it. He'll have an entry for both the Cheltenham races and the ground would play a part in deciding his target; it would need to be testing for him to run in the Gold Cup. If it's like it normally is in March, on the good side, then it would be the World Hurdle, and he'd have a real chance in that.

"I wasn't too surprised he won in Ireland and he might have won more easily if he hadn't missed the last. He had improved since the Hennessy. Now that we have learnt how to train him and made things more comfortable he jumps better and travels better. He now has belief and confidence in himself."

Nicholls drew a line under 2012, which had drawn to an end with some trying moments (like the contentious removal of the retired Kauto Star and the loss from the ranks through injury of four-time World Hurdle victor Big Buck's) with not only Tidal Bay's triumph but also by winning with his last runner of the year, Landscape, at Taunton yesterday.

On the jumping front, though, the old may be rung out and the new in with a muffled peal. Today's sport at Uttoxeter and Punchestown – where the classy Solwhit is due to make his long-awaited comeback – and tomorrow's traditional hangover-busting meeting at currently waterlogged Cheltenham are subject to inspections, with more rain forecast. Today's Warwick fixture is a victim of the weather.

Turf Account

CHRIS McGRATH'S NAP: Lucky Di (12.30 Lingfield)

Off the mark over today's course and distance 12 days ago, just her fourth run and her first after a break. Carries top weight for her handicap debut but has a progressive profile.

NEXT BEST: Kung Hei Fat Choy (2.30 Lingfield)

Yet to score in this grade but won handily at this course on his first try on the faster all-weather surface earlier in the month.

ONE TO WATCH: Plenty to have run recently will do better when the ground eases, among them The Nephew (Jonjo O'Neill), not given a hard time behind the well-regarded Poet in a novices' contest at Newbury.

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