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Paul Nicholls might have turned 60 earlier this year but his hunger for success remains as strong as ever as he bids to defend his Jump Trainers’ Championship and claim a 14th title.
The Ditcheat handler is confident he has another “great team” on his hands for his 32nd season as a licence holder and is excited to unleash an intriguing mix of established performers and exciting youngsters.
Not one for resting on his laurels, Nicholls is well aware he and his Manor Farm Stables operation face plenty of competition from Nicky Henderson and Dan Skelton in their attempts to wrestle away his crown.
However, there are few in the sport better adapted to handling such pressure and Nicholls said: “Last season was another good one with a fantastic amount of winners again – 143 winners and a good strike rate of 23 per cent and it was over £3 million in prize money, if you include Frodon winning in Ireland.
“We’ve got a great team and we have 24 or 25 bumper horses that haven’t run yet in the squad and I think there are a lot of building blocks there for the future
“We’ve got a lot of good novice chasers. Novice hurdlers we might be weak on but that will balance itself out as some will surprise you. There is lots to look forward to.”
The days of Kauto Star and Denman may seem a distant memory but in Bravemansgame Nicholls has an individual that looks sure to be a major player in the staying chase division.
Earmarked by Nicholls as a future Ladbrokes King George VI Chase contender last season, the seven year old could tackle next month’s Future Stars Intermediate Chase at Sandown Park ahead of a trip to Kempton Park on Boxing Day, where he secured Grade One glory last year in the Ladbrokes Kauto Star Novices’ Chase.
Nicholls, a Betfair ambassador, said: “The King George is very much the plan for him but there are lots of races he could run in beforehand. He could go to the Charlie Hall if he is ready or he could go to Sandown the week after for that Intermediate Chase if there was rain about.
“My idea is to give him one run before the King George. We are very happy with him – we just want to keep him big and well like he is at the moment and try and keep the form going forward in the spring.
“It might sound stupid but he was prepared to run at Cheltenham and he had done enough by the time Aintree came round.
“He goes a bit light on you after Christmas so we have got to try keep him big and well into the spring.
“He still doesn’t convince me he is a dour three and a quarter mile stayer until he proves otherwise and Cheltenham and the Gold Cup is a different test to three miles around Kempton. He looks great and I’m happy with the way he is.”
Bravemansgame with Scott Marshall
Trainers can often be creatures of habit and Nicholls is no different after mapping out the same path as 12 months ago for last season’s Betfair Tingle Creek hero and bet365 Celebration Chase winner Greaneteen.
He said: “He was amazing last season. His best performance was at Sandown on the last day. He is always the underdog and doesn’t get the credit he deserves but he won another two Grade Ones last season and he loves Sandown.
“We will follow the same route and go to Exeter for the Haldon Gold Cup, then go to Sandown for the Tingle Creek, but if we have to go straight to the Tingle Creek we will.
“After that we will make another plan for him but he won’t be going back over to Ireland for the Dublin Racing Festival.
“I think the reason he likes Sandown is that he has speed and he jumps well. He just loves it round there and it seems to suit his style of running.”
While Sandown Park is a happy hunting ground for Greaneteen the same applies to Clan Des Obeaux and Aintree, following his second Bowl Chase success.
The Grade One contest will once again be the 10 year old’s primary target and Nicholls said: “I’m sure there is another good race in him and his ultimate target this season will be the Bowl at Aintree as he loves it around there.
“I expect he will go for the King George as well. He has won it twice and he deserves to be in there. Last season I made a mistake not running him before the King George.
“I’ve got several options for him and we will find a race for him on route to the King George. He looks good but I think he saves his best to the spring.
“A bit like Kauto did, as he has got older they just are that bit harder to get fit first time as they look after themselves a bit.”
Hitman rattled the bar on several occasions last season but Nicholls is confident the six year old will get his moment to take centre stage this season, which could begin in the Jewson Monet’s Garden Old Roan Limited Handicap Chase at Aintree on October 23rd.
He said: “He ran well in the Haldon Gold Cup and the Tingle Creek but his best run was when he was second in the Grade One at Aintree behind Fakir D’Oudaries.
“He has had a breathing operation in the summer and that has just helped him and will hopefully give him more stamina. We might start him off in the Old Roan at Aintree as he likes the track and two and a half miles suits him.
“He could end up running in the King George as I think he will benefit from going three miles and that would suit him very well, but he is only a six year old. I think there is lots more to come.”
Few horses have enjoyed as much coverage in recent seasons as Frodon, who will once again start his campaign in Down Royal before returning to Kempton Park for another tilt at the King George VI Chase, which he claimed back in 2020.
Nicholls knows the 10 year old’s limitations but he said: “Frodon has been brilliant and we will start off in the Grade One at Down Royal he won last year. He was ready for his life that day and the same will happen this season.
“He won’t win a Gold Cup and is unlikely to win another King George but that race suits him well and he will probably run in that again. Races in the second half of the season like the Silviniaco Conti Chase and Oaksey Chase are ones for him.”
If there is one area Nicholls looks to be well represented in this season it is with his novice chase team and heading that group up is Gelino Bello, who signed off last season with victory in the Grade One Cavani Menswear Sefton Novices’ Hurdle.
Nicholls said: “Gelino Bello will now go chasing and is a super horse to go over fences. Hopefully he can progress from what he did over hurdles.
“Some of these horses are wanting to have the same sort of race but we will give them experience and hopefully keep them apart.
“He could be a great one for the three mile Grade One at Aintree in the spring but there are lots of nice races for him before that.”
Stablemates Stage Star and Monmiral are also Grade One-winning hurdlers set to tackle fences this campaign and Nicholls believes both will be seen in better light over the bigger obstacles.
He said: “Monmiral is a very interesting horse. He got that injury in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle and we were left catching ourselves up a bit.
“He ran a bit fresh and free at Fontwell in the National Spirit and then he stepped forward in the Grade One behind Epatante at Aintree.
“We will start him at two and see where we end up. Often a good two mile chaser needs to stay so I would say he would be just that.
“The Henry VIII might just be ideal first half of the season target for him. He is going to be a high class chaser.
“Stage Star is a Challow Hurdle winner, though he went a little bit Pete Tong in the spring like Bravemansgame. He has had a breathing operation which will help.
“We will start him off somewhere small then go for a better race. I always thought he would be a good chaser over a hurdler.
“We didn’t see him at his best in the spring but I’m sure we will get him back and he looks great at the moment and I’m very happy with him.”
Joining that trio will be multiple Grade Two winnerMcFabulous, Complete Unknown, and Silent Revolution, who Nicholls feels could be a “dark horse” this season.
He said: “McFabulous got a little injury in the yard so we ended up staying over hurdles last season and it hasn’t done him any harm. He ran some good solid races before winning at Sandown on the last day of the season.
“In my mind, ground permitting, he will go to Chepstow then on to the Rising Stars at Wincanton, then possibly on to the Kauto Star at Kempton Park over Christmas. He loves flat tracks and going right-handed. If he jumps fences he will have a bright future.
“He is a tough, good, solid horse and he has started jumping really well and I think those extra runs over hurdles didn’t do any harm. If he takes to fences he will have a bright future.
“Complete Unknown is a very nice horse to go novice chasing. He won the EBF Final at Sandown. He loves soft ground and keeps on improving. He ran well at Perth but he had probably had enough by then. He could be well handicapped.
“I think Silent Revolution is a bit of a dark horse going novice chasing and I like him a lot. He won first time over hurdles then got an injury and we then couldn’t run him until the spring.
“We ran him in the Supreme and then he went back to Chepstow made all and we put him away to go chasing.”
Nicholls might not possess the same strength in his novice hurdle team but in Timeforatune and Henri The Second he feels he has two that could take high rank.
He said: “Timeforatune won three bumpers last season and is a very nice horse. He was a bit slow schooling last season so we didn’t run him over hurdles but he is schooling well now. He will probably want two and half.
“He was just over the top on his last run and had done enough by then. He should have been hurdling but we wanted to keep him for this season.
“Henri The Second won a bumper at Chepstow then at Ascot. He got struck into early at Aintree and he pulled up but he is fine now. He is very much in the mould of Stage Star. He could be our Challow Hurdle horse this season.”
Nicholls expects both Knappers Hill and Hacker Des Places to pay their way over hurdles as the season progresses.
He said: “Knappers Hill doesn’t strike me as being a chaser. He will start off in the Silver Trophy at Chepstow on Saturday and then we will see where we go.
“He could be one we roll in those Grade Two hurdles like the Elite. He just doesn’t want the ground too soft. At Sandown on fast ground over two on the final day of the season he was very good.
“Hacker Des Places won very well in the conditional jockeys handicap hurdle up at Aintree. He will probably end up going to the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham. He keeps on improving and looks a progressive horse.”
Outside of the Grade One and Two contests over fences Nicholls believes Il Ridito could be well suited to the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham in November, while the 61st Badger Beer Handicap Chase at Wincanton the same month has been identified as a target for stablemate Enrilo.
He added: “Il Ridito could head to the Paddy Power Gold Cup. He needed his wind done and he has had that done.
“The Paddy Power Gold Cup is a race where they go flat out and the only time he had that last season was when he won at Newbury. There is a lot to come from him.
“Enrilo will probably go for the Badger Ales as that will be a great track for him. He had a few issues with his teeth and his breathing but we hope to be back where we were are and he should go well off 143.”
It is 10 years since Nicholls captured the Grand National with Neptune Collonges and in dual Grade Two scorerThreeunderthrufive he feels he might have a horse capable of developing into a candidate for Aintree.
He added: “Threeunderthrufive is a lovely horse who was progressive last season. The Coral Gold Cup at Newbury is his target with a run over fences or hurdles beforehand.
“I will talk to the owner about giving him a Grand National entry and if we have one horse for the race this season it could be him.”
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