Time of the essence in Denman bid

PAUL Nicholls admits time may be running out to get Denman back to his brilliant best ahead of the totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup on March 13.

The runaway winner of the 2008 renewal made a belated return to action at Kempton earlier this month following treatment for a heart abnormality, but could only muster a lacklustre second behind Madison Du Berlais.

The nine-year-old suffered his first reverse in 10 starts over fences that day and has thrived since, but connections concede his trail-blazing effort last year could have left its mark.

Nicholls said: “Going to Kempton proved that right-handed is not ideal for him, but I had no other opportunity to get a run into him.

“The day out and the race has brought him on enormously and it was the best thing to ever happened to him.

“If you take out the winner he would have beaten Albertas Run 25 lengths and be red-hot favourite (for the Gold Cup) but I am not sure how the form of that race will work out.

“The ground was dead and he wasn’t as ready as we thought. He has improved, but he has to as he wasn’t the same horse the other day as he was last year.

“I don’t know if we have the time to get him back to that level, and it might be that he’ll run a nice race in the Gold Cup and another summer off will get him back to how he was.”

Nicholls saddled a famous one-two-three in last year’s Gold Cup courtesy of Kauto Star and Neptune Collonges, and it is the former who is as short as 6-4 favourite to regain the crown he won in 2007.

Of Kauto Star, Nicholls said: “We have learned now that he needs to be fresh.

“There are not many horses who have had the defeats he has had – like against Denman last year – and bounced back to show top-class form. I think Kempton on Boxing Day was one of his very best runs.

“We are going to Cheltenham this time with him fresh, and knowing that he does stay and does go on soft ground.

“I am very happy with him, and think he is the one they have to beat.”

Almost sharing second-favouritism with Denman is last weekend’s Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup winner Neptune Collonges, who restored his reputation following an uncharacteristic fall in Ireland over Christmas.

“He has now won three Grade Ones in Ireland and who knows what would have happened had he stood up there over Christmas as he does gallop right to the line,” Nicholls continued.

“He was back here Monday morning at 7am after running on Sunday and has got over that well.

“He will start cantering tomorrow and is a year younger than Kauto and Denman so there could still be improvement in him.

“He is right in the mix in the Gold Cup and wasn’t beaten far last year, although he did have the race run to suit.

“He only has to improve a couple of lengths on last year.”

The champion trainer could have up to five runners in the Gold Cup with the John Smith’s Grand National pair of Star De Mohaison and My Will also entered.

“Star De Mohaison has been plagued with injury but has come back as good as ever this year,” Nicholls added.

“All his best runs have been on decent ground so hopefully the ground will dry up for him, and I think you will see a much better performance from him.

“He is in the Gold Cup and the William Hill Handicap Chase and will run in one or the other.

“It is ground dependent but if we have a dry spell he will run nicely in whatever he runs in.”

My Will has not been seen since finishing fifth in the Hennessy, with Nicholls keeping him out of the handicapper’s sight until the publication of the Grand National weights last week.

He added: “We are purposely aiming him at Aintree but will run at Cheltenham along the way.

“He is still in the Gold Cup and if that cut up he could run, and he is in the William Hill on the first day.”

Big Buck’s also holds an entry but his preferred target is the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, with Nicholls confirming Ruby Walsh, Sam Thomas and Christian Williams the jockeys for Kauto Star, Denman and Neptune Collonges respectively.

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