The notion that Paul Nicholls would have to look to his laurels as champion trainer this season seems to have been quietly and quickly discarded. Halfway through the campaign, his is the only stable past £1m, already around £300,000 clear of Nigel Twiston-Davies. Admittedly Nicky Henderson, who had been perceived as his most feasible rival, does field two challengers to Kauto Star in the rescheduled William Hill King George VI Chase at Kempton on Saturday. But those trying to make a case for Long Run and Riverside Theatre were yesterday given intimidating new evidence that the Nicholls hegemony remains as strong as ever.
First there was the publication of 34 entries for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, predictably dominated by the three previous winners who together guarantee another vintage race on 18 March. Two, Kauto Star and Denman, are famously stabled in adjacent stalls at Ditcheat. But Nicholls has also seen fit to enter five other horses, including a couple of rising stars in Pride Of Dulcote and The Nightingale. Among British yards, only Henderson and Jonjo O'Neill could muster even two entries. Henderson has entered Long Run and Punchestowns, who was turned over on his reappearance at Newbury last month – by Pride Of Dulcote, who was having just his second start over fences.
Then, as if to reinforce the point, bookmakers reported fresh support for just about the only horse being backed to deny Kauto Star that fifth King George. That is none other than The Nightingale, three years the champion's junior and contesting only his fifth race over fences. Nicholls himself admitted yesterday: "If Kauto wasn't in the race, I would really fancy him strongly."
He also acknowledged that the postponement had worked in favour of The Nightingale, conditions now being much softer than had been expected on Boxing Day. Even at the time, however, he had given the younger horse an enthusiastic endorsement. "If it were a handicap, he would be giving Long Run weight," he said. "He's an unexposed, improving horse and if you look at the others you could only really say that of Riverside Theatre. Since having a breathing operation, he has not looked back and he's bred to stay." Little wonder if The Nightingale is now 10-1 from 12-1 with Coral, though there remains plenty of confidence behind the favourite, too, now 4-6 from 8-11.
A King George in January handsomely redresses what is generally the slowest month of the racing calendar. As always, however, only the most parochial will overlook the start of the Dubai International Carnival today. Both Godolphin trainers will be keen to land running, with five runners between them in Round One of the Maktoum Challenge. Of particular interest are Mendip, who looked a star in the making until World Cup night last year, and has not been seen since; and Storm Ultralight, a Uruguayan import who thrashed a consistent Group-race operator at Lingfield last spring, but likewise disappeared after being beaten next time.
Grand Award (3.20 Catterick) Jumping could be heart-in-mouth over hurdles and a mistake two out contributed to defeat on his chasing debut, but perhaps this shorter trip will confirm him to be well handicapped.
Runningupthathill (3.10 Hereford) Has shown practically nothing in three qualifying runs over hurdles, but gets a corresponding mark and takes a huge step up in distance for his handicap debut.
One to watch
Five Star Wilsham (Jeremy Scott) Remains lightly raced and was simply caught out by the drop in trip with third at Wincanton.
Where the money's going
Madison Du Berlais is 28-1 from 40-1 with the sponsors for the William Hill King George VI Chase on Saturday.