The 10-year-old won this event en route to glory in steeplechasing’s most prestigious prize in 2008, although little went right the following season due to heart problems.
He was right back to his brilliant best in the Hennessy at Newbury in November and just needs to come through this assignment to set him up for another mouthwatering clash with stablemate Kauto Star at Cheltenham on March 19.
“It has worked well winning this race on the way to Cheltenham before,” said Nicholls.
“In an ideal situation you need a run at this time of year.
“It’s not essential, but it was always in his programme to have a run here as mentally it does them all good to get out.
“The form he was in at the Hennessy, we could quite easily have run him fresh (in the Gold Cup) without a run but he’s a little more stuffy than Kauto Star and it just fits in with his preperation.
“Before he won the Hennessy we took him down to Exeter for a gallop but we left plenty to work on, the idea was that he’d have a nice day out and it would bring him on and it worked perfectly.”
Denman will face five rivals on Saturday including stable companion Tricky Trickster, a leading Grand National contender.
Niche Market, Air Force One, Ollie Magern and Wee Robbie complete the field.
Denman’s joint-owner Harry Findlay is expecting a “really good performance” in the Grade Two contest, with 14-times champion jockey Tony McCoy in the saddle for the first time.
Findlay said: “I’m really glad Tony is riding. I wouldn’t like the idea of going into a Gold Cup riding him for the first time.
“Denman can be a bit of a character and a bit quirky, but he’s got to win and I’m expecting a really good performance.”
Despite his well documented heart problems, Denman still ran second to his illustrious stable companion in last season’s Gold Cup, and Findlay has everything crossed the pair make it to Cheltenham once again
“I was standing in the winner’s enclosure and Denman got a better reception than the winner,” Findlay continued.
“I thought ‘next year surely can’t happen’, but to be one race away from going there again is incredible.
“If Denman comes through at Newbury, I’d make him favourite for the Gold Cup.
“I’ll be backing him to win it, in view of the fact that the three and a quarter miles is in our favour rather than Kauto Star’s.
“But I’ll still be happy even if he comes second to him at Cheltenham.
“What I’ve always loved about this game is the big head-to-head clashes and hopefully we’ve got one again, because I don’t think Cooldine is the real deal and I don’t think that Imperial Commander will stay the trip.”
Ollie Magern was well held on his latest appearance at Cheltenham but Nigel Twiston-Davies is pleased with the 12-year-old’s current form.
“It’s obviously tough for him nowadays and it’s going to be hard with Denman there, but he’s in good order and will pick up a bit of prize-money,” said the trainer.
“I’m very happy with him at the moment and nothing in racing is certain so we’ll have a go and see what happens.”
Bob Buckler is keen to get a prep run into Niche Market, last year’s Irish National winner and this season’s Hennessy third, ahead of Cheltenham and Aintree.
“It’s a shame Exeter’s Graduation Chase is off, that would have been the ideal race for him. He needs the run,” said the Somerset-based handler.
“I hope the ground’s not as sticky as last time. He got stuck in the mud a bit.
“He’s in great form, but obviously we can’t see him beating Denman.
“He goes for the William Hill at Cheltenham next and then the Grand National.
“I suppose there’s a slight gamble involved tomorrow if he runs a bit too well, but he’s going to take his chance.”