After a couple of early mishaps in his novice season over fences, the grey went back hurdling and it clearly did his confidence the power of good as he finished second in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Saphir Du Rheu easily won an Aintree Grade One on his return to chasing a month later, and also enjoyed an impressive return to action at Carlisle on November 1.
The six-year-old was challenging Coneygree for Hennessy favouritism before trainer Mark Bradstock was forced to withdraw the Gold Cup winner, with Nicholls’ inmate now the outright market leader.
Nicholls said: “He schooled over a dozen fences with Sam Twiston-Davies on Thursday morning and he worked Wednesday with his half-brother, Ibis Du Rheu.
“He looks fantastic and we are very happy with him.
“He has got a lot to do off the weight, but he is a big, strong horse and well capable of winning off top weight.
Despite the absence of the current Gold Cup holder, there is still one winner of the blue riband – and Hennessy – in the field, with the well-backed Bobs Worth running for Nicky Henderson.
He will be ridden by Nico de Boinville in Coneygree’s absence and warmed up for the Hennessy with an uplifting return to winning form over hurdles at Aintree earlier this month.
Henderson said: “We’ve come in on an odd preparation, if you like, in that we’ve given him a run over hurdles, but it was always in my mind that would amuse him and it was good.
“I don’t know what sort of a race it turned out to be, but it was perfect for what we wanted to do with him.
“He’s got a race under his belt that he has enjoyed.
“He’s won this before in 2012, but he’s in a different place nowadays to where he was then, so it’s probably going to be tougher.”
Fingal Bay, who was pulled up in the race when well fancied 12 months ago, is one of two runners for Philip Hobbs.
Jockey Richard Johnson said said: “He had a really good run, I thought, at Kempton behind Smad Place on level weights that day and in the Hennessy we’re getting 9lb.
“You’d like to think wherever Smad Place finishes, we won’t be far away.
“I think he’s got a live each-way chance, but it’s probably made it even more open now Coneygree has come out.”
Hobbs also saddles the JP McManus-owned If In Doubt, who will be partnered by Barry Geraghty.
The Minehead handler said: “He’s a backward horse and he’s in particularly good form, but the main problem has been his jumping.”
First Lieutenant finished third to Bobs Worth three years ago and though he has struggled to show his best of late, trainer Mouse Morris is not without hope of a shock victory.
Morris said: “He is grand after his run in Clonmel and there is not a bother on him.
“We left the headgear off there because he was just starting back and I thought it was a very good run.
“He is showing me a bit of sparkle and I feel there is still a good bit of ability there if I can get him back.”