Paul Nicholls is confident Britain’s highest-rated jumper Cyrname can lift the pressure on his shoulders by striking gold in the Betfair Ascot Chase for the second year in succession.
Having floored Altior at Ascot in November’s Christy 1965 Chase on his return, Cyrname had to settle for second best when upped to three miles behind stablemate Clan Des Obeaux in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
With the Johnny de la Hey-owned eight-year-old reported to be firing on all cylinders at home, however, 11-time champion trainer Nicholls is convinced he can restore his lofty reputation on Saturday – reverting back to the two-mile-five trip he is unbeaten over in three starts at the track.
He said: “When you have an odds-on favourite there is always pressure on you – because you want to get the right result and you don’t want to let anyone down.
“He is coming back off an underwhelming run in the King George, and the pressure is on me to get him back right, but he is showing me all the right signs.
“Harry Cobden schooled him this morning (Monday), and he jumped nicely. He had a little away day last week, but he didn’t do a lot.
“He worked very nicely on Saturday morning, so he is bang on schedule. All the rain we have had won’t do him any harm at all.”
Assessing potential opposition to Cyrname, who is 8-15 favourite with the race sponsors to defend his crown, Nicholls believes it could be Nigel Twiston-Davies’ recent course-and-distance scorer Riders Onthe Storm who gives his charge most to think about.
He said: “It was a good race last year – because you had Waiting Patiently, Politologue, Aso and Fox Norton in it – and it does look a weaker race this year.
“Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horse is on fire and is improving – and you don’t know how much improvement there is. He is the only other one I can really see improving.”
Although Cyrname holds entries in both the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase and Ryanair Chase at next month’s Cheltenham Festival, Nicholls warns he is unlikely to take up either engagement.
He said: “If he runs on Saturday and gives himself a hard race it would be too close to Cheltenham – and it would be more likely we would think of another plan, perhaps Aintree or Punchestown.
“If he runs on Saturday I would say there is virtually no chance of him running at Cheltenham.”
While Nicholls also has Frodon entered in Ascot’s Grade One feature, that is as a “precaution” – should anything happen to Cyrname.
He added: “I’ve left him in the Ascot race at the moment, but he won’t run against Cyrname. If anything happened to Cyrname during the week then I have an able substitute in him really.
“He is in as a precaution, and if he doesn’t run on Saturday he will go straight to the Ryanair or the Gold Cup, but it would almost certainly be the Ryanair. He would be an able deputy, because two-miles-five suits him well, and it is a stiff track.”
Nicky Henderson has left in both Janika and Top Notch, both owned by Simon Munir and Issac Souede.
Janika will be stepping back up in trip following his fourth place in the Clarence House Chase, while Top Notch was third to Frodon at Kempton last time out.
After Saint Calvados was beaten just a nose under a big weight over two and a half miles last time, his trainer Harry Whittington feels the distance is perfect.
“He’s now turned into a horse that gets a trip,” he said.
“He’s probably lost a gear for two miles.
“He improved going up in trip on New Year’s Day in the handicap, and ran a belter. He lost out by the smallest of margins – one pixel.
“He’s in the Ascot Chase. We’ll consider him for that, and he’s in the Ryanair.”
Gary Moore’s Traffic Fluide completes the possibles, and could make his return from over a year off.