Following up his success in the 2013 renewal, Noel Fehily’s mount made every yard of the running to score by four and a half lengths and five from Dynaste and stablemate Al Ferof.
Nicholls and Fehily pulled off a carefully constructed plan to make best use of their charge’s assured stamina and improved concentration gained from the application of a pair of cheekpieces.
The eight-year-old was cut into 5-2 favourite (from 6-1) for the Cheltenham Gold Cup by Ladbrokes, while Hills make the Ditcheat gelding 4-1 market leader (from 7-1), a price shared by Paddy Power about a race in which he finished fourth last year. To rapturous applause, the combination never looked like being reeled in, as Dynaste stayed on strongly for second.
Nicholls said: “It’s all a bit surreal. Things weren’t going well (on the day), but Conti got us out of trouble.
“He jumps and he gallops and we kept it simple. I knew he would gallop and stay and we decided to make it a proper test of stamina. The cheekpieces have helped him, he can be a bit lazy and they have really woken him up.”
Nicholls compared Silvianaco Conti to one of his previous King George victors, See More Business. He said: “See More Business won the King George twice and went on to win a Gold Cup and I hope this fellow can go on and put the big one on his CV.
“When he jumped the last in front I was astounded he didn’t go on and win last season’s Gold Cup, but then after he ran at Aintree we found he had gastric ulcers. In fact there were various things we had to iron out and put right last year and the result is that he’s come back a stronger and better horse.
“I felt he needed the cheekpieces to help him concentrate and they have made a huge difference. Today he jumped soundly and only got tight to the one down the far side. Otherwise he was foot-perfect. All he needed was one kick in the belly from Noel and he was away.
“Whether he runs again before Cheltenham is very much undecided, but all he does is stay and the Gold Cup is his number one target.
“Longer term I would love to see him come back here and give us the magic 10 King George wins. I can’t believe how lucky we’ve been to do so well in this race and I have to again give credit to my head lad Clifford Baker.”
Nicholls added that he would look to chart a course towards the Queen Mother Champion Chase with the Sam Twiston-Davies-ridden Al Ferof.
He said: “I’ve just had a word with John (Hales, owner) and he is happy for me to point him at the two-miler at Cheltenham. He just ran out of stamina today and we know he possesses all the toe in the world.”
David Pipe was delighted with Dynaste but is undecided whether to aim the grey at the Gold Cup.
The Pond House trainer said: “He’d done plenty of work before the Betfair Chase, so I can’t say he was fitter today.
“It was encouraging to see him finish his race strongly, but we’ll have to take him home and see about the Gold Cup. To be honest, I’d rather win the Ryanair than finish third in the Gold Cup.”
Meanwhile Faugheen is as low as even money in places for the Champion Hurdle after a breathtaking display in the williamhill.com Christmas Hurdle.
Trained by Willie Mullins, the soon-to-be seven-year-old stretched his unbeaten career record to eight with arguably his most impressive display to date.
Mullins is in the enviable position of also housing the great Hurricane Fly, and while he may be nearing the end of his reign, the dual champion is still a threat in his back yard of Leopardstown, meaning Faugheen has run twice in Britain this season.
Having won at Ascot despite being described by Mullins as “fat”, he was sent off the 4-11 favourite on what looked his stiffest test with Fighting Fifth winner Irving and Elite Hurdle hero Purple Bay in opposition.
However, Ruby Walsh knew what was underneath and as the others struggled with the pace set by Blue Heron, with Irving being pulled up, Faugheen cruised alongside him before sprinting clear to beat Purple Bay by eight lengths, with a blunder at the last barely breaking his stride.
“It’s probably the best run of his career so far and I think he is improving all the time,” said Mullins.
“With regards to a run before Cheltenham, I’m very open minded.”
Winning owner Rich Ricci said: “That was good to watch.”
When told of his price for the Champion, he said: “Is he really? There’s still Hurricane Fly and Jezki to think about.
“It was a big test today but he was very impressive and we’re lucky to have him, he’s something else.
“He’s something to look forward to, that’s for sure.”
Walsh said: “He jumped great barring the last, but the race was over. He does not lack speed or pace.
“He won at Punchestown and people forget that is a fast hurdle track, he won a two-mile novice there so the form was there for all to see.
“He’s a very good horse and a pleasure to ride.”