Cheltenham Festival 2011 

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Nicholls Unveils Cheltenham Squad

Trainer Paul Nicholls described this year’s totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup as the “most interesting renewal for a long time” as he bids to land chasing’s Blue Riband for a record-equalling fifth time.

Paul Nicholls

Paul Nicholls

Nicholls paraded some of his 2011 Festival team, including past Gold Cup winners Denman and Kauto Star, yesterday at a media day organised by Cheltenham Racecourse at his Manor Farm Stables at Ditcheat in Somerset.

“There are some interesting young horses in there like Long Run and Diamond Harry but I still think the three older horses, Denman, Kauto Star and Imperial Commander, are the ones to beat,” said Nicholls. “I’ve always thought Diamond Harry was a good horse, although he has to turn around the weight in the Hennessy with Denman, and if Long Run can repeat his Kempton form at Cheltenham then he is a big danger. It’s the most interesting Gold Cup for a long time and if they all get there in one piece it will be a great race.”

But Nicholls, who could also run Neptune Collonges and What A Friend in this year’s race, believes he is heading into the totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup with a strong hand.

“Denman had a soft-palate operation after his last run and he is definitely working better up our hill now,” he added. “He ran a cracking race at the weights in Hennessy and we decided that we didn’t want to run him again after that. He’s obviously 11 and not getting any younger but he looks great in his coat.

“Kauto Star was a bit disappointing at Kempton but Riverside Theatre franked the form of that race on Saturday. He had a trickle of blood in the bucket after that run so you can forgive him that. He jumped nicely when he won at Down Royal prior to that and I hope to give him a racecourse gallop before Cheltenham, it’s something we’ve not done before.

“Neptune Collonges is not getting any younger or quicker but the intention is to run him in the Gold Cup. He’s been placed twice before, loves Cheltenham and always runs his race. He ran a cracking race when winning the Argento Chase, making all the running and he’ll ensure a good gallop in the Gold Cup.

“I wouldn’t run What A Friend if it was very testing ground - you could see he wasn’t ever going after two fences at Newbury last week. He has hasn’t improved on last year in the way we thought he might so he has to improve remarkably to figure in the Gold Cup.”

Big Buck’s is on course to bid for a third Ladbrokes World Hurdle success and Nicholls said: “He never came off the bridle when winning last time and he’s bang on course for the race. We look to have some good opposition in Grands Crus and some of the others but on form our’s is still the one to beat.”

Nicholls’ formidable team also includes Master Minded, who is bidding to become only the second horse to win three runnings of the Queen Mother Champion Chase, a race in which he is likely to be joined by Woolcombe Folly.

“Obviously last season was a bit of a damp squib but Master Minded had a breathing operation and is a different animal since. He looks different this season as well,” continued Nicholls. “He idles in front and last time A P (McCoy) said he was in front too soon. We had him very fit for his first two runs and then we backed off him so, although it sounds strange to say it, I think he wasn’t as fit last time as earlier in the season. But he looks fab now, he’s going nicely and I think he has an outstanding chance at Cheltenham.

“Woolcombe Folly is one of the most improved horses in training. He missed the Game Spirit Chase because he gave a couple of coughs beforehand and he had a dirty trachea wash but he’s back in full work now. His form has been outstanding and I never thought at the start of the season that he’d be one of the leading contenders for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. He wouldn’t want it too soft and has been a real surprise package for us.”

Nicholls has a strong team of novices heading into the Festival, including Aiteen Thirtythree and Ghizao, respectively leading contenders for the RSA Chase and The Irish Independent Arkle Chase.

“Aiteen Thirtythree is one of my favourites,” he added. “He won by about 53 lengths last time and I spoke to the handicapper, Phil Smith, today and he rates him on 159, which is 8lb higher than Denman when he won the RSA Chase and only 2lb behind Time For Rupert.

“He’s astounded me with the way he has improved this year and both Noel Fehily and Nick Scholfield said that he was one of the nicest horses they had sat on. His part-owner Paul Barber is coming round to the idea of running him in the RSA Chase and his other owner Andy Stewart is very keen to go to Cheltenham so there’s a very strong chance he’ll run. Given another summer on his back I’d like to think we could be talking about the Gold Cup for him.

“Ghizao is a lovely big scopey horse who struggled with his breathing last year. He went nicely in a racecourse gallop with Poquelin at Wincanton yesterday and he’s bang on course for The Irish Independent Arkle Chase. I think he’s got an outstanding chance.”

Nicholls’ young hurdling team include Al Ferof, who is likely to go for the Stan James Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle contender Join Together and a duo on target for the JCB Triumph Hurdle in Brampour and Sam Winner.

“I call Al Ferof the baby Neptune Collonges, he was second in last year’s Weatherbys Champion Bumper and has gained experience from winning his last two novice hurdles and I think he’d have won when falling first time out at Cheltenham,” he added. “He’s in the Supreme and Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle and I haven’t decided which he will go for but I suspect that if the ground is good-to-soft then he will go for the Supreme. He’s very much in the mould of Noland, who won that race.

“Brampour was third at Kempton on his first start when I had left a bit to work on and he will be better on good ground and be suited by the fast-run race he gets in the Triumph.

“I shouldn’t have run Sam Winner in the mud at Chepstow over Christmas as he didn’t act on it at all. He’s fresh and well and starting to work really nicely and I think you’ll see a different horse at Cheltenham where I think he’ll run a great race.

“Join Together is a winning point-to-pointer in Ireland and won by about 25 lengths at Chepstow last week. I think he has an outside chance in the Albert Bartlett.”

Poquelin, who was runner-up in last year’s Ryanair Chase, is bidding to go one better in this year’s race.

“The new course that is used in the Ryanair Chase suits him better than the old course. He was second in the race last year but I think he’s improved. He’s very well at the moment and goes straight there.”

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