Trainer Paul Nicholls lacks the firepower he had a decade ago but he still heads to many of the big races with live chances. Over the festive period his string has continued their good form, competing well, and that includes those competing at the top level. With the Cheltenham Festival approaching, he will be looking at what he has in the yard and readying his assault on the four-day event. If the past couple of weeks are anything to go by, then his horses look sure to compete well in March.
Gone are the days when Paul Nicholls heads to the Cheltenham Festival with a stable full of stars like we have seen in the past. He had a golden period around 10 years ago involving the likes of Kauto Star, Denman, Big Bucks, and Master Minded, to name a few. Those horses gave Nicholls the Cheltenham Festival trainers’ title for four consecutive years during the period of 2006 to 2009, a period of dominance he would love to see come back to his yard again. All four horses were once in a lifetime charges for Nicholls, and coming all together at once gave him the firepower that trainers dream of.
Times have changed now at Ditcheat; some of his bigger owners are no longer associated with the yard and the past few years have been a battle for him. However, he does still have good contacts in France, and people willing to back him, so success does still come frequently. That makes things tougher, of course, but, with the knowledge and success Nicholls has had in the past, he continues to find ways to be involved in all the big races, even if he lacks the dominance he had during his golden period.
He has started the 2017/18 campaign well yet again, without having a true top quality star in his stable; expect to see him involved in the major upcoming races. He has been involved in many over the festive period, and three horses, in particular, have stood out from his yard.
The first horse to make a positive impression was Clan Des Obeaux, who didn’t win the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at Cheltenham but did run very well and with credit to come second. The race was marred with tragedy when Starchitect broke down when leading the race and was fatally injured, a moment that all but ended interest in the race, such was the shock and sadness from both those in attendance and the jockeys riding in the race.
Prior to the race, Clan Des Obeaux was tipped up by the experts at Oddschecker to place in the race, something which he duly obliged on. Going into the race, he had some very good form and was impressive when beating Vintage Clouds by seven lengths in a Graduation Chase at Haydock in heavy ground. Prior to that, he came close to Whisper in a two-horse race and, overall, he looks to be a much better horse this season than what we saw last season.
Part of the reason for that may be the partnership that has been struck up this season between the horse and jockey Harry Cobden. The young jockey has taken over riding duties on Clan Des Obeaux this season and, so far, he has been very impressive. He is sure to ride him again in the future and having a horse and jockey partnership that works well will make sure that the horse is giving it everything when out on the race track.
Looking forward, and the long-term target for Clan Des Obeaux could be the Ryanair Chase; while this would mean a big step up in class for him, it is the race distance that would suit him the most at the festival. The only other option for him appears to be sticking in handicap company and carrying a huge weight, something that would give him little chance of winning. While the Ryanair would also be a very tough ask, the prize of a Grade 1 victory and the money involved would likely sway the decision for Nicholls.
Whatever the target is, Clan Des Obeaux will likely have one more run before the Cheltenham Festival, and then head there with an outside chance in whatever he runs in. After such a good season, heading into the festival as an outsider shows just how hard it is to win races at Cheltenham, and it is also another sign that Paul Nicholls lacks the firepower he once had.
One of the big stories over Christmas was Bryony Frost winning her first Grade 1 race as a jockey on the admirable Black Corton. The horse has been a revelation for Nicholls this season, racking up a number of wins in low-grade contests early in the season, before working his way up the rankings to this Grade 1 success.
After one novice chase run last season in a two horse race behind Altior, Black Corton was back out early to progress through the chasing division. His first race of this season came in June when he won at Fontwell by seven lengths. At that stage, no one in their wildest dreams would think that he would progress enough to be a Grade 1 winner after that Fontwell run.
A loss in his race after was then followed up by five wins in a row, all of which came with Bryony Frost on board. Those victories not only put Frost in the spotlight as an up-and-coming female rider to watch but they also showed that, despite starting his season back in June in a weak race, Black Corton could mix it with the best in the novice chase division.
After losing a Grade 2 race at Newbury at the beginning of December, some may have thought we had seen the best of Black Corton. A combination of his season starting in June and that being his eighth race, with the possibility that he had reached his peak, was the reason for his defeat in many people’s eyes. However, on his ninth start of the season, we saw the likeable six-year-old bounce back in dramatic style.
It was perhaps fitting that Bryony Frost landed her first Grade 1 on a horse trained by Paul Nicholls, in a race named after arguably the greatest horse that Paul Nicholls has ever trained. When landing the Grade 1 Kauto Star novice chase, Black Corton was sublime, brushing aside some top quality rivals with relative ease, showing great determination and toughness to do so.
That performance was enough to put him in the picture for the Cheltenham Festival yet again, although he must surely have a break before March. That means he could take some time off now and come back for the festival without a prep run. That shouldn’t be too much of an issue for him, and a race like the RSA Chase looks to be the ideal sort of test for him.
The partnership between Bryony Frost and Black Corton has really blossomed over the course of this season and it has been fantastic viewing when they have hit the track together. Both have been thrown into the spotlight at the same time, and reacted brilliantly, constantly showing their desire to work hard and succeed. A date at the Cheltenham Festival awaits them both, and a chance to go out and perform on the biggest stage of them all could well bring out even more improvement from this impressive duo. The test of jumping and stamina in the RSA Chase is what Black Corton needs, and he is sure to give a good account of himself in the race.
The final horse to speak about after the festive period is Politologue, who is probably as close to a stable star as Paul Nicholls has right now. He has been highly progressive over the past few weeks and has put himself right in contention for the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. This big grey horse has the right mix of speed and jumping ability to cope with the tests that come in the Champion Chase, and he will more than likely be Nicholls’ best chance of a winner when we get to the festival.
We saw Politologue win three out of five starts as a novice chaser last term, all at a trip of around two and a half miles. That was a good season, culminating in a 4th place finish at the Cheltenham Festival behind Yorkhill in the JLT novice chase. That was a very good season but well short of what we have seen this season and a big reason for the change has been thanks to a drop in trip, back to two miles. Trainer Paul Nicholls made the decision at the start of the season and, despite falling on his seasonal reappearance, the horse has never looked back.
Since the fall, Politologue has gone on to win the Grade 2 Haldon Gold Cup and the Grade 1 Tingle Creek to really show his future lies at the distance of two miles. He made it a hat-trick of wins over the festive period, with a comfortable victory in the Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase. That was another indication that the grey has the ability to mix it with the best two-mile chasers and he is going to be a popular bet for the Cheltenham Festival.
With question marks surrounding many runners at that distance, Politologue has taken the opportunities in front of him and shot towards the head of the market for the Champion Chase. He will more than likely have one prep run before heading to Cheltenham and, unless something comes out from under the radar, he would represent the best chance Paul Nicholls has of having a winner at the 2018 event. With the potential for even more of his rivals to bypass the festival due to injuries, there is a chance he would turn up as favourite on the day, such has been his impressive run of late.
If Paul Nicholls has a genuine Grade 1 horse in his yard, then, right now, that horse would have to be Politologue. The decision to move him back down to two miles has already paid huge dividends, giving the yard three big race victories. With the chance to add further to that, the first part of 2018 could be where Politologue announces himself and lays down his claim to be favourite for the Champion Chase.
The Paul Nicholls yard has had a good time over the past few weeks, with three big race performances from three of the best horses in their yard. Clan Des Obeaux was the only one who didn’t win but he showed enough to see that he is capable of winning a big race at some point in the near future. He is probably too high in the weights to head to the Festival and win a handicap but a graded race could be in his grasp, although the Ryanair may be a little too much to ask.
Elsewhere, Black Corton has been a huge story in racing this season and his partnership with Bryony Frost deserves all the success it is getting right now. Both have been fantastic and a Cheltenham Festival victory would be the icing on the cake. He looks to be an RSA type and would go there with a chance; you certainly wouldn’t question his jumping or staying ability.
Finally, Politologue looks to be the leading light from Ditcheat this season, taking the step back to two miles in his stride. He has been very impressive when winning three races this season and has taken a huge step forward from his form last year. He looks to be the best chance of winner at the Cheltenham Festival for Paul Nicholls right now and it is going to take a good performance from someone to stop the dashing grey from going past the winning post in first place in March.
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