Kauto Star looked set to dominate the blue riband for years to come when running out an impressive winner in 2007, but he had to give best to his stablemate Denman 12 months ago.
While the latter has endured well documented problems in the run-up to this year’s renewal and was a big disappointment on his Kempton comeback, Kauto Star comes into the race on the back of his third success in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day.
Nicholls saddled the first three home last year with Denman, Kauto Star and Neptune Collonges filling the places for the Ditcheat handler and he has solid claims of at least repeating the feat, as he is also responsible for Star De Mohaison and My Will.
“Kauto Star is fresh and well and has done everything right, while he’s had a much better preparation this year,” said Nicholls.
“He was beaten by a better horse on the day last year, but the statistic about no horse coming back to win the Gold Cup is there to be broken.
“The ground has come in his favour and he’s in real good form. You couldn’t go into a race with a horse better than he is at the moment.
“Denman won’t mind decent ground, but I honestly don’t know how he will run. There’s no reason not to run him, but if he tanks off like last year, he won’t get home. Sam (Thomas) will have to ride him as he finds him.
“The ground won’t help Neptune Collonges, who likes plenty of cut in the ground, but he’s in good form. Star De Mohaison will also like the ground. All being well after this, My Will will go for the Grand National.”
Denman’s joint-owner Paul Barber has his fingers tightly crossed that Denman can retain his title but admits he is not expecting a performance to match that of last year.
“I am looking forward to it. One hopes he is over his problems, but we won’t really know until we run him over three miles two and a half furlongs tomorrow afternoon,” said Barber.
“I would basically have said there were lots of things against him that day at Kempton. He wasn’t fully wound up and I’m sure he’s going to improve a lot on that.
“It’s a long way to come from last year to this year. I’m not going to pretend that I’m expecting what happened last year is going to happen.
“Last year I thought we might win. This year I’m crossing my fingers.”
Kauto Star’s owner Clive Smith is also hoping for the best and believes a lighter campaign this time around will stand his charge in good stead.
“He’s in great shape and as good as he can be,” said his owner Clive Smith.
“He’d be the first horse to come back and win the Gold Cup. I’d be very impressed if he could do that. It’s a strong race this year – no doubt about it.
“We’ve campaigned him differently to last year, so we missed out the Ascot Chase this time.”
Neptune Collonges finished third behind his more exalted stable companions last year, but only a short-head denied him second place.
Jockey Christian Williams said: “I popped him over a few fences last weekend and it went well.
“If it was three miles at Kempton we wouldn’t have a chance of beating Kauto Star but over three-miles-two round Cheltenham, you’d like to think that hopefully you’d have a chance.
“He’s a very straightforward horse. If he ends up getting a lead off one or two then so be it but if he ends up making the running it doesn’t matter.”
David Pipe has his runner Madison Du Berlais in tip-top shape but is not confident about confirming Kempton form with Denman.
“It’s great to have the fourth favourite in the Gold Cup,” said the Nicholashayne trainer.
“We don’t know what to make of the Kempton form. We might see a different Denman, but we go there with a realistic each-way chance. On official ratings we should finish fourth.”
Exotic Dancer was second to Kauto Star in 2007 and fifth last year, but makes a third bid for glory fresh from victory in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas.
The Jonjo O’Neill-trained gelding would have returned to the Dublin track for the Hennessy Gold Cup early last month had the weather not delayed the race by a week.
“We didn’t need to go for the Hennessy when it was rescheduled,” said Barry Simpson, racing manager to owner Sir Robert Ogden.
“He was fit and all he has been doing is ticking over. Jonjo says he’s in great shape and his horses are running well, so everything is fine.”
Star De Mohaison also runs in the Ogden colours after missing an engagement on Tuesday due to the ground.
He will now be ridden by Timmy Murphy after Paul Carberry suffered a heavy fall on Thursday
Simpson added: “He has the ability to travel in his races and he also has the ability to jump, which will do him a world of good in a championship race.
“The ground is drying out all the time and it could come right for him. I think the horse is good enough to run into a place.
“We’re obviously disappointed that Paul can’t ride but Timmy is available and is riding well at the moment.”
Charlie Mann reports Air Force One to be in the form of his life ahead of what will be his first outing since injuring himself in the King George.
“He’s as good as I can have him and he looks absolutely fantastic,” said Mann.
“He’s just got back in from his last blow and he’s still in one piece. It’s the first time I’ve ever looked forward to Friday the 13th I think!
“I couldn’t be more pleased with our horse and the drying ground will help him.”