Seven-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls’ contenders for the 2014 Cheltenham Festival include hopes for many of the big Festival events – such as record-breaking Big Buck’s, who is bidding for an amazing fifth Ladbrokes World Hurdle success, and Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup second favourite Silviniaco Conti.
Big Buck’s (pictured right) finished third in the galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle on his comeback at Cheltenham in January after nearly 14 months off and Nicholls believes the 11-year-old has come on for the run.
“He came in late and we did all we could to get him ready for his first run,” said Nicholls. “When they have had leg trouble, you do have to train them a bit with the handbrake on so he was always going to need the run.
“Sam (Twiston-Davies) rode him exactly how I wanted him to at Cheltenham – this horse wins because he’s a stayer and all he did that day was stay. Ruby (Walsh) rang me that evening and said he would have ridden the horse exactly the same way.
“Big Buck’s lost 10 kilos after Cheltenham and it tightened him up. He had a week off afterwards and there’s only one day we want him back to his best for. He’s a much better horse on decent ground so I hope it’s not too soft. He’s my best chance at the Festival this year.”
Former JCB Triumph Hurdle winners Celestial Halo and Zarkandar are other possibles for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.
“Celestial Halo is due to run at Haydock on Saturday and he’ll improve for what he does there because we’ve been held up a bit. We need to give him the race to get him back for the World Hurdle,” said Nicholls.
“He’s been a fantastic Cheltenham Horse, he won the Triumph and finished second in the World Hurdle and went on to win in France last year.
“Zarkandar is also in at Wincanton on Saturday and he’ll run in the World Hurdle. He always comes alive in the spring, he could go to Aintree, Punchestown and maybe France. He looks really well at the moment. He’s bred to stay and Celestial Halo did the same thing last year. I was never convinced he’d stay but he did and you don’t know until you try.”
The Grade One Ladbrokes World Hurdle, worth £275,000, is run on the third day of The Festival, St Patrick’s Thursday, 13 March.
Silviniaco Conti (pictured right), who gave Nicholls an eighth King George VI Chase victory on Boxing Day, is set to be joined in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup by Rocky Creek, who the trainer feels is a worthy second string.
“Silviniaco is one of the favourites for the Gold Cup and I thought he was travelling extremely well in last year’s race. I think he was going to finish first or second but who knows?,” said Nicholls. “We have done things a bit differently this season. Last time our aim was to win the Betfair Chase so he went to the Charlie Hall first and this time his aim was the King George so we went to the Betfair first and he improved for the run.
“His stamina kicked in when he won the King George and I think he has a leading chance in the Gold Cup. He is the right age and has strengthened up. They are all dangers in the race but Bobs Worth is probably the one to beat, he’s unbeaten at Cheltenham.
“I’d like to give him a racecourse gallop somewhere in the next 10 days and if the ground stays like this then we may take him to Kempton to work on the all-weather.
“Rocky Creek has an entry in the National and Gold Cup and I suspect he’ll run at Cheltenham – he’s not thrown in at the weights at Aintree. He ran a good race in the Hennessy but then had colic afterwards. We then had to rush him a bit and he got tired in the Argento Chase, he probably wasn’t as fit as he should have been. He’ll have a racecourse gallop somewhere to get his fitness up.
“I think he’s capable of running a big race in the Gold Cup, I’m not saying he’ll win but he could easily get in the frame. He’s a decent staying chaser and he’ll get the trip. He won over three miles in the Reynoldstown Chase last year.”
The £550,000 Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup is run on the final day of The Festival, Friday, 14 March.
Al Ferof was taken out of the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup this week and he is most likely to line up in the Ryanair Chase.
“We took him out of the Gold Cup because it was fairly obvious that he doesn’t stay,” said Nicholls. “He’s in the Ryanair and the BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase but it’s almost certain that he’ll run over two miles and five furlongs in the Ryanair. We’d only think about the Champion Chase if the ground was very testing. For a Dom Alco, he has a lot of speed – we’d been trying to ride him as if he was a stayer and he probably isn’t.
“He needed a run and his outing on Saturday will have done him good.”
Sam Winner was also out on Saturday, finishing second to Smad Place in a novices’ chase at Newbury, and Nicholls feels the seven-year-old heads to the RSA Chase, staged on Wednesday, 12 March, with a fair chance.
“He was second to Smad Place giving 3lb on Saturday but the winner is 8/1 for Cheltenham and we are 16/1 and I’m thinking what a good price. He didn’t want the ground as soft as it was on Saturday but needed the run. I’d left plenty to work on – he’ll tighten up after Saturday.
“He’s got an entry in the four-miler (National Hunt Chase) but is almost certain to run in the RSA. Ballycasey might be the one to beat but I think it’s a pretty open RSA.”
The JLT Novices’ Chase is Wonderful Charm’s aim and Nicholls added: “He’s got a poultice on at the moment but it’s nothing and we’re on top of it.
“He was beaten by Oscar Whisky when giving 8lb and the key to this horse is good ground so I’d love to see it drying up a bit. He could go to Cheltenham, Aintree and then possibly Sandown.”
Both Dodging Bullets and Hinterland head to the Racing Post Arkle Chase and Nicholls commented: “Dodging Bullets has had a fantastic season. He won three from three, then we gave him a break and wanted to get a run into him again at Newbury on Saturday.
“He gave weight to Module in the Game Spirit and got beaten a neck. There’s plenty of improvement to come to have him at his best in the Arkle. The faster they go the better for him, he jumps well and he looks well in his coat which I always think is important at Cheltenham.
“I’ll give him a couple of quiet weeks then tune him up for Cheltenham. He’d like much better ground than he got on Saturday and is one of the leading contenders for the Arkle.
“Hinterland is a second-season novice so his jumping is good and I’ve wanted to get him ready for the Arkle. He’s another that I’d like to give a racecourse gallop in the next 10 days.
“I left him in the Champion Chase in case it cut up but he probably won’t run in that. He had a breathing operation in the summer and he could go onto Aintree and possibly Sandown after Cheltenham.”
Irving is heading to the opening race of the meeting, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and Nicholls added: “We got him from Germany and he’s three from three over hurdles and his form was boosted when Splash Of Ginge won the other day.
“We’ve minded him a little but he’s likely to go to Cheltenham and then possibly on to Aintree. I’m pleased with how he looks and I want to get a run or a racecourse gallop into him. He has loads of speed and jumps nicely and he could run on soft, he has form on that sort of ground.”
Calipto is due to contest the JCB Triumph after scoring at the weekend. “He won at Newbury on Saturday in an all-aged hurdle with a 10lb penalty against older horses. He jumped and travelled well and won nicely. He has loads of speed.
“The handicapper has put him up to 149, which is high for a juvenile, and I think Le Rocher – on the same mark – and he are the two highest-rated juveniles in Britain and Ireland.
“I always think Newbury’s meeting is the last proper opportunity to have a prep run if you are going to take them to Cheltenham.
“He’ll go straight to the Triumph and the only doubt I have is that it often seems to be horses like Irving and Celestial Halo, with Flat form who win the race.”