There are times when you can't see the trees for the wood. And while a fixation with the big showdown is as understandable as it is inevitable, the fact remains that their stable would house the strongest Cheltenham Festival team in these islands even without Kauto Star and Denman. So while his Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup candidates are guaranteed a crescendo of publicity nearer the time, Paul Nicholls yesterday identified some of the others charged with making him the Festival's leading trainer for the fifth year running.
Last year Nicholls saddled five winners at the sport's biggest carnival and he returns in 19 days' time with odds-on favourites for three championship races in Kauto Star, Master Minded and Big Buck's. While he does not seem to have quite so many gifted novices as in previous seasons, a parade of 22 horses at his media open morning permitted no doubt that Nicholls retains breathtaking strength in depth.
In any other yard, Master Minded would be the horse of a lifetime. He seeks his third consecutive success in the Queen Mother Champion Chase with his reputation renewed by that spectacular comeback at Newbury earlier this month – a description that applies equally to his recovery from a blunder at the last fence, as to his recuperation from a fractured rib.
Even at such short odds, many punters will be treating Master Minded as a private mint. Nicholls offered them little discouragement. "He's the best I've seen him for a long time," he said. "To me, he's just like he was two years ago. Last season, I had a nightmare training him. He kept tying up, he had loads of muscle problems. I don't think I ever had him right last spring, even though he won at Cheltenham and Punchestown. But looking at him now, I know he's back to his best. He looks fab in his coat, and he travelled and jumped really well at Newbury – except for trying to demolish the last. He had gone six weeks not being ridden, but during that time he was doing 15 miles a day on the walker so we kept him ticking over."
Given Nicholls' recent hegemony in elite steeplechases, perhaps his only reservation about Master Minded peers out of a stall just a few yards away. Twist Magic won two Grade One prizes during the champion's absence and, with Ruby Walsh committing to the favourite, will be ridden by Robert Thornton. "In the last couple of years, for whatever reason, Twist Magic has just fallen apart in the spring," Nicholls said. "But he seems a different horse this season. Mentally he's a lot better and, hopefully, his troubles are behind him. I know he hasn't always run well at Cheltenham but Ruby is adamant he would have won the  Arkle, when he fell at the second last."
The biggest danger to Big Buck's in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, seemingly, is even closer to home. "I suppose the way he races, he'll get himself beat one day," Nicholls mused. "I wouldn't want anything to stop Ruby being able to ride him, that's for sure."
The one big prize in which Nicholls seems merely to contribute to the competition, rather than dominate it, is the Smurfit Champion Hurdle. But he sounds conspicuously optimistic about the prospects of Celestial Halo, runner-up 12 months ago, despite a comprehensive defeat in the Irish version last month. "He's got an outstanding chance in what looks an open race," he said. "He loves Cheltenham, and I'm sure the key to this horse is spring ground. It was bottomless at Leopardstown, and while on paper it might look slightly disappointing, I think he ran better than he did before the Festival last year, at Sandown. And you all saw the improvement he made then, from one run to the next."
Among the younger horses, Nicholls reckons that he might have his first "live" contender for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper in Al Ferof, and he unmistakably intimated that Advisor, a winner at Newbury and Ascot since his arrival from Michael Bell, has continued to flourish in his preparations for the JCB Triumph Hurdle.
For punters, however, perhaps the best has been saved until last. Certainly those who enjoy a good "plot" will note the similarities Nicholls detects between Chapoturgeon, who cruised home in the Jewson Handicap Chase last year, and Rivaliste, his candidate this time. Having impressed on his debut for the yard at Newbury the previous month, this French import was caught on the line at Sandown in December. "But he idled in front that day," Nicholls explained. "He's on the same mark as Chapoturgeon last year, and I decided there and then not to run him again before the Festival."
Turf account: Chris McGrath
King's Salute (8.40 Kempton) Lost his unbeaten record at Lingfield last time but only to a smart prospect and remains fairly treated off the same mark today.
Chapel Flowers (3.20 Ayr) Looked set to resume his progress on returning from a break, moving smoothly into contention when falling.
One to watch
Ashkazar (D E Pipe) caught the eye keeping on for a midfield finish at Ascot on Saturday, and looks primed to exploit a falling handicap mark soon.
Where the money's going
Ladbrokes clipped Miss Mitch to 6-1 from 8-1 for the Racing Post Chase at Kempton on Saturday.Reuse content