Replacing quality horses such as Gold Cup heroes Kauto Star and Denman would be a monumental task for any racehorse trainer – even Paul Nicholls.
That is before you start to utter the names of former Cheltenham Festival winners Master Minded and Big Buck’s, who was sadly ruled out for the remainder of the season with an injury in December.
The Somerset-based Ditcheat Stable then, you would have thought, would be a quieter place to be, with the horses that reside there forever living in the shadows of former greats.
It is not.
Although the Cheltenham plaques remain on the horseboxes that belonged to the champions that once were, it only acts as a reminder of the standards the yard’s master expects.
This year, with a somewhat depleted squad of 26 horses, Nicholls heads to Cheltenham with heaps of youth and potential within his side.
Silviniaco Conti, a 5–1 chance for the Betfred Gold Cup, leads the 50-year-old’s charge for Festival glory.
Undefeated in three starts this season, the seven-year-old son of top-class sire Dom Alco has shown persuasive displays of form that credit him to be a serious Gold Cup contender.
Nicholls, more than anybody, knows what it takes to win this prestigious race, and when talking about Silviniaco Conti at his Cheltenham Festival media day, he does so with a huge smile from ear-to-ear.
He said: “He (Silviniaco Conti) has done incredibly well this season. When he got beat at Ascot last year he wasn’t right. He was coughing a lot afterwards.
“We decided to miss Cheltenham and the RSA for that reason and waited until Aintree, where he ran a fantastic race.
“This year we set him up for the Charlie Hall to see how good he really was and he was superb. He followed that up with a terrific win against Long Run at Haydock, before winning well at Newbury on very testing ground.
“He’s a horse that performs so much better on good ground that he can be absolutely awesome. You can ride him anywhere.
“(Silviniaco) Conti’s done everything right this year and the Gold Cup is an interesting race. I suspect that the novices from last year (Bobs Worth, Silviniaco Conti and Sir Des Champs) will be the top three, but you shouldn’t rule out Long Run.
“Conti's got a nice chance and we are very happy where we are with him at the moment.
“He is a totally different model to Kauto (Star) and Denman. He’s not flashy. He’s workmanlike, but he just gets the job done.”
Another of Nicholls’ main hopes this year is the 2011 Triumph Hurdle winner Zarkandar (pictured top), who, like Silviniaco Conti, runs in the silks of Chris Giles.
The six-year-old has recorded seven victories from nine runs whilst at Ditcheat. It is this impressive win ratio that Zarkandar’s trainer has labelled him as his ‘little Hurricane Fly’.
He said: “He (Zarkandar) struggled last year.
“Again, he’s not a flashy sort, but he just loves to get to the front and he absolutely loves to gallop up the Cheltenham hill.
“He’s only lost two of his races with us, which is some effort. He is our own little Hurricane Fly.
“Zarkandar has a great chance in the Champion Hurdle. I think there isn’t a lot between Hurricane Fly, Zarkandar, Rock On Ruby and Grandouet. He’s certainly a contender.
“It’ll best suit him if the ground is on the slow side, but he has done nothing wrong and should run a good race.
“Ruby is the stable jockey for Willie (Mullins) so he will definitely ride Hurricane Fly, but Daryl (Jacob) gets on very well with him (Zarkandar) and they are capable of doing the business.”
Going from a Triumph Hurdle winner from 2011, to a possible champion in the same race this year, Far West, a horse that Nicholls seemed very enthusiastic about, has won with conviction in all of his starts this season.
The antepost joint-favourite defeated River Maigue at Ascot last weekend, with Nicky Henderson, the trainer of the beaten horse, later describing the race as a ‘replica of the King’s Stand Stakes’ due to the late three furlong sprint to the finishing line.
However, Nicholls reported that he and jockey Ruby Walsh were delighted with his run.
He said: “Far West has won all four of his starts and he has done very well in all of them.
“Particularly, on Saturday when he won a very tactical battle at Ascot with Nicky’s (Henderson) horse.
“Ruby said that the way he flew home from the second last to the line was very impressive. He looks to be a proper racehorse in the making and one that we rate really highly.
“He will go for the Triumph this year and then we will probably go hurdling again next season, but he looks to be a good sort.
“He reminds me of Zarkandar a lot and that is why he trains with him. We’re looking forward to the Triumph Hurdle with this one.”
The latter currently is available at 14–1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with Boylesport and it is a price that the seven-time British Champion Trainer believes is ‘too big’ for the form that he has already shown.
He stressed that Unioniste, owned by the 2012 Grand National-winning silks of John Hales, was a horse ‘trained for The Festival’.
Nicholls suggested that the RSA Chase was his most likely destination and that a strongly-run gallop would suit him more than the pacemaker role he undertook at Newbury two weeks ago.
Fago is set to face the hotly-fancied Simonsig in the Arkle at Cheltenham, but Nicholls explained that he feels that he will be a better horse next year after his team are given a chance this summer to strengthen the five-year-old.
He also announced that Wonderful Charm was given a wind operation following his first run for the yard in October last year.
Nicholls suggested that if he had the chance to run on good ground this season, the Robert Geffen-owned horse would have had the World Hurdle as his main objective.
However, he is instead going to tackle the Coral Cup at The Festival.
Nicholls also confirmed that Sanctuaire would ‘definitely’ run in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham against National Hunt’s new pin-up horse, Sprinter Sacre.
But, he insisted that the seven-year-old’s ‘Gold Cup’ would be at Sandown for the Grade 2 Celebration Chase at the end of April.
Despite the lack of stable star presence in Nicholls’ Cheltenham plans this year, rest assured that ‘Team Ditcheat’ will be sending a group of horses capable of winning their designated events.
The Festival will act as a platform for his horses to show off their unexposed talent.
It may well prove to be that the meeting at Prestbury Park was the perfect opportunity for Nicholls to unearth the new heroes for the future.
By James Yellen. E: [email protected] M: 07889 085535
Photograph by Ian Yates. www.eyewhy.co.uk
James Yellen is a 22-year-old freelance racing journalist from Newbury, Berkshire.
He is currently in his third year at university studying for a degree in Sports Journalism and will be graduating in July this year.
James has previously written copy for the Racing Post and Press Association, as well as writing numerous articles for Eclipse Magazine.
He tips Champion Court in the Ryanair Chase at 10–1 as his nap bet for the Cheltenham Festival in March. Follow him on Twitter @JamesYellen.