With a host of exciting new arrivals joining forces with several established stars returning for more, there is good reason why Paul Nicholls is heading into the new season full of optimism.
Though dethroned as champion trainer by Nicky Henderson last term, the coveted crown could be heading back to Nicholls and Manor House Stables for a 12th time with his team possessing plenty of strength in depth.
Helping Nicholls enjoy success on the big stage in recent times has been the emergence of Clan Des Obeaux, who has developed into a genuine Grade One performer thanks to back-to-back wins in the King George VI Chase.
A third shot at glory in the Boxing Day feature beckons before Nicholls will explore an alternative route for the eight-year-old, who for the second year running came up short in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Nicholls said: “I’m thinking of starting off in the Betfair Chase at Haydock then going to Kempton as it suits him well, so the King George on Boxing Day will be his main target.
“He won’t have a Cheltenham Gold Cup entry as like Silviniaco Conti he seems a stone worse there. After Christmas I’m thinking of doing things a bit differently and my main aim then would be the Punchestown Gold Cup.
“We could get him nice and fresh for that and let the others do battle at Cheltenham and Aintree. He is eight now, but I think he is as good now as he has ever been.”
An outing in the Gold Cup remains the target for the returning Topofthegame, who will tread the same path Denman did before landing the blue riband in 2008, by taking in the Ladbrokes Trophy – formerly the Hennessy Gold Cup – as a first port of call.
Nicholls said: “If we can keep him right we know he has a huge amount of ability and we are aiming to go to the Ladbrokes Trophy. I’m not sure what we do straight after Christmas but the Gold Cup will be our sole aim.
“The season out hasn’t done any harm as he strengthened up and matured and he looks great. Denman won an RSA and went on to win a Gold Cup and I’d like to think this lad can do the same.”
After becoming the first horse to lower the colours of Altior over jumps in the Christy 1965 Chase at Ascot, Cyrname failed to reach those heights in two subsequent starts last term – but Nicholls is confident the eight-year-old can bounce back beginning in the Ladbrokes Champion Chase at Down Royal.
He said: “Nothing went right after beating Altior at Ascot. He had a hard race there and never really got over it in time before Kempton and the ground in the Ascot Chase was desperate.
“The plan is to go to Down Royal and we will know truly if he gets three miles, if he does we will go to Kempton on Boxing Day. If he doesn’t get three miles at Down Royal he has no chance of getting three miles at Kempton.
“I’m not bothered about going left-handed now with him and if you watch him at Ascot last season he was jumping out a little to his left.”
Politologue finally gained the Cheltenham Festival success missing from his CV with victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase in March, and everything will be geared towards the defence of his crown in five months’ time.
Nicholls said: “He had a few issues bleeding and he had a bleed in the Tingle Creek. I rang John (Hales, owner) and said I don’t want to run him before Cheltenham and just leave me to have him ready for the day.
“It was probably the best we ever had him and though the race fell apart a bit he could have still been very hard to beat.
“He will go straight to the Tingle Creek. We will have him ready for his life like he was at Cheltenham.
“There are always new horses coming through, but he is still capable of competing at the top level.”
It is eight years since Nicholls tasted glory in the Randox Health Grand National with Neptune Collonges, and in Truckers Lodge he could have a horse capable of giving him a second victory in the Aintree marathon.
He said: “We had a plan to try to win the Welsh National and he wasn’t beaten very far. If we had more confidence in his staying ability we could have had a different result.
“He won the Midlands National impressively and the Grand National will have to be the target this season.
“There is a £25,000 limited handicap over three and a quarter miles at Kelso at the end of the month and we will probably start him there and then give him an entry in the Ladbrokes Trophy.”
Nicholls has often excelled with his novice chasing team and Betfair Hurdle winner Pic D’Orhy could prove the pick of those switching to fences this campaign.
He said: “He won the Betfair Hurdle last season, but he was bought to be a chaser. He has just started to jump nicely. He just needs to give fences a bit more respect as he is not a natural that has a bit of scope and respect for them.
“He is likely to go to Market Rasen for the race I won with Ayzertyuiop and Dynamite Dollars. It is a good starting point for him.”
A recent wind operation will hopefully help revive the fortunes of Grade One winner Laurina – one of 16 horses Nicholls has received from owner Jared Sullivan over the summer.
Nicholls said: “She started off very well last season beating Minella Indo, then she bled twice I’m led to believe. We’ve done her wind and I’m hoping that was one of the reasons making her bleed.
“I’m going to start her off in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot over two-mile-three. We could mix and match as there are some good mares’ chases in this country.”
Paul Nicholls on some other names to note at Ditcheat this season:
“He won two novice hurdles at the end of last season. The plan is to run him in a Listed novice hurdle at Kempton next weekend, then go to Cheltenham for the Paddy Power meeting. He took a while to acclimatise last season like a lot of the French horses do.”
“The plan is to go for the Charlie Hall and he is in good shape. We want to campaign him a bit more over three miles this season, as that is what he definitely wants. He just wasn’t quite good enough last season and has probably lost a gear as well. He has won a Cotswold Chase over three-one and I think three miles is his trip now.”
“He is a nice horse and the plan is to go to the Haldon Gold Cup. He ran very well at the Cheltenham Festival in the Grand Annual and he did nothing but progress last season. I could see him running in a Tingle Creek if he progresses.”
“I’m starting him off in the Persian War at Chepstow. I could either then find another novice or go to Newbury, which is what I really want to do, for the Long Distance Hurdle and then see how good he is. Last year he was big and weak, but he is much more mature now. He had a fall schooling then first time at Chepstow a horse fell in front of him and it just didn’t go right, but he ended up getting well handicapped for the EBF Final. In my mind I can see him being competitive in a Stayers’ Hurdle. He is a high-class horse.”
“He has had the best part of 18 months off since he won at Punchestown. We are on top of everything at the moment and if we keep him sound he will be a very nice novice chaser as he has schooled well. He could go to Fakenham for a three-mile novice chase.”
“I’m told he is better right-handed and his form suggests that, but he did run well in the Gold Cup where he looked a non-stayer. I think we will start him off in the Christy 1965 Chase that we won last year with Cyrname. To me he is a Ryanair horse. “
“He ran well at Cheltenham having only won at Catterick the time before. I will give him a run over hurdles somewhere then he will have an entry in all the good two-and-a-half-mile handicap chases, including the Paddy Power, which might be a nice race for him.”
“We will start him off at Wincanton in the Elite Hurdle and go from there. He has been gelded during the summer. He was very good at Kempton in the Adonis, but he got lost a little bit round Cheltenham in the Triumph and he may have been over the top. He will improve this season as we have started from scratch with him.”