Some days I sit on my hands bored watching poor quality racing and wondering exactly what to write about next but other days I am the happiest man around and a trip to a major yard is one thing guaranteed to bring a smile to my face.
At this time of year in the build up to Cheltenham my good friends at Racenews in conjunction with Cheltenham racecourse organise a few media days, and this week, after the postponement of the Nicky Henderson trip (fingers crossed for the next date), I bravely headed off toward Ditcheat and the Paul Nicholls stable to listen to the seven time champion trainer’s thoughts on his Festival team.
First things first and those hoping to read about a handicap good thing are in for an early disappointment – at this stage the weights have yet to be announced (I’ll be there for that, don’t worry), so no handicappers were on show or even mentioned – no real point with so many targets and the weights so important to decision making I suppose?
So everyone reading knows the angle I am coming from, you may well have already caught the write ups from other racing publications but over the years I have found them to be a bit verbatim – I have found plenty of extra winners by watching the body language, looking for hints as to what the trainers really think, and that has served me well (not perfectly) over the years, so here’s hoping for a winner or two here – off we go with my cherry pick of the Nicholls team……..
The first horse “wheeled” out for out attention was Gold Cup outsider Rocky Creek who was a Grand National possible until the weights were announced as they think he has been handicapped out of that option. A bout of colic left him a gallop or two short ahead of his last run so we can expect improvement (he was seven lengths runner up to The Giant Bolster), but there wasn’t too much enthusiasm and a place would seem to be the very best they could hope for barring accidents?
Next out was everybody’s favourite as a sleek looking Big Buck’s played to the crowd, as is his habit. We all know his form (18 consecutive victories over hurdles including FOUR World hurdles), but were they disappointed with a lowly third on his return from injury? Far from it to be fair, with Paul pointing out that he has been given a far easier return in previous years but was forced in to this more competitive contest to get a run in to him pre Cheltenham and they were delighted with a three quarter length beating after he blew up close home. Media criticism of jockey Sam Twiston-Davies’ tactics were also put in their place with confirmation that Ruby Walsh called Paul the evening of the race and told him he would have ridden Big Buck’s in exactly the same way – case closed. More importantly, Paul failed to hide his enthusiasm for the now eleven year old who has relatively few races on the clock for his age, and with Irish challenger Annie Power showing plenty of speed (and thus bringing her stamina in to question), he seemed very confident of yet another record breaking performance and I will follow that advice at the current 5/2.
Moving on (or we will be here for ever), and Al Ferof was next though now they are convinced he fails to truly stay three miles his options are more limited. The Ryanair Chase looks like his target now where he would face the likes of Cue Card in what could or should be a decent contest, but again I sensed disappointment more than joy and a lack of confidence so he is not one I will be backing at this early stage. Irving was the first of the novices to appear and he did look a picture to be fair, with the Supreme Novices his Cheltenham target, and with the form of his last run boosted since by the third, he ought to have a reasonable chance, though novice chaser Sam Winner drew more plaudits. Apparently he needed the run last time out when two lengths second to Smad Place at Newbury when last seen and they do seem to think he has chances in the RSA Chase though better ground would see him improve even further. Wonderful Charm seems assured to head for the JLT Chase to avoid his stablemate and again, granted decent ground, is in with a chance. A good looking son of Poligote, he gave eight pounds to Oscar Whisky when going by half a length mid December so ought to reverse the form at level weights, though heavy ground (who knows) is unlikely to suit by all accounts.
Drawing toward the end now (are you still awake?), and Calipto was next out ahead of a tilt at the Triumph Hurdle. His latest form looks rock solid with victory in an all-aged novice hurdle, which should stand him in good stead back in his own age group. Paul did point out that ex flat horses do so much better in the Triumph (perhaps it’s their tactical speed?), which seemed to remove any signs of confidence but granted heavy ground, I think he is in with every chance. Two to go and Hinterland seems well liked ahead of a tilt at the Arkle, though he still holds a Champion Chase entry so must be held in some regard! A breathing operation has seen him in a much better light this season with two wins at Sandown and although he only beat Grandouet a neck last time out, there is a thought that he may have been idling in front. Last, but by no means least is Ron’s Gold Cup fancy Silviniaco Conti who also seems strongly fancied by the stable! In the words of his handler, he may have been going too well when falling in the race last year BUT has learnt an awful lot from that. Although not deliberate at his fences, he does show them more respect these days which must be a positive and I noted a lot of confidence about his chances, meaning I will hoover up the best prices as soon as I finish!
Sean Trivass would like to thank Paul Nicholls and all the staff for their help with this interview.