Champion trainer Paul Nicholls will call on the likes of Kauto Star and Denman at the Cheltenham Festival next month but of his more low-profile contenders, he is particularly keen on the chance of Nycteos in the Racing Post Plate.
Nicholls is even-money favourite with Cashmans to again end up champion trainer at the meeting and will be disappointed not to collect two winners courtesy of his big guns.
But the unheralded Nycteos was another the Somerset handler pointed out from his plethora of prospects and said: “He won twice over two and a half miles last season and he was going really well in the Topham at Aintree before falling.
“He chipped a bone in his hock after that and has not run this season.
“He will go for the Racing Post Plate off a mark of 132 and I think he could be well handicapped.
“He will probably go for a hurdle at Newbury next week and could be a dark horse.”
Kauto Star will be flanked by both My Will, the likely mount of Sam Thomas, and Neptune Collonges (Liam Heard) in the totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup and their master was not ruling out a fair performance from either.
“If Neptune had not fallen behind Exotic Dancer at Cheltenham last time he would have run a career best,” he explained.
“I actually think he might be suited by better ground and he could run into a place.”
“My Will has actually gone up a pound after Wincanton last Saturday and I’ve left plenty to work on so he could get a place too.”
Two-milers are thinner on the ground compared to the great years of Azertyuiop and Call Equiname, with Sporazene the flagbearer in the Seasons Holidays Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Nicholls added: “He made a bad mistake at the cross fence at Newbury last time and may have finished second to Well Chief on ground he didn’t like. He could make the first four if he jumps well.
“Armaturk will probably go for the Queen Mother while Saintsaire is going straight for the Grand Annual.
“I was going to run him in the Victor Chandler after his win at Newbury, but it was called off and I didn’t run him again because he could be quite well handicapped.”
New Little Brick and Saturday’s likely Kempton runner Natal were reported on target for the Jewson Novices’ Handicap Chase and Twist Magic for the Irish Independent Arkle.
Those options are also open to Opera Mundi, who Nicholls has not written off despite defeat at Wincanton last weekend.
“Probably two miles around a Flat track did not suit him – I think he is better over two and a half but I had to run him to get him handicapped,” he said.
“He would only run in the Arkle if it was soft and next year he’s going to be a Paddy Power Gold Cup sort of horse.
“He’s also in the Racing Post Plate and it will be interesting to see what mark he gets.”
Royal Auclair will have the Sporting Index Cross Country Chase as preparation for the John Smith’s Grand National, a race also possibly in the pipeline for Thisthatandtother, who first tackles the Ryanair Chase.
“Taranis is also going to go for the Ryanair and I think it will give Ruby a real headache,” said Nicholls.
“I’d love to see the ground dry up for Taranis and that could make him one of our best chances.”
Kicks For Free was discovered to have bled after his disappointing run at Kempton over Christmas and will tackle the Anglo Irish Bank Supreme Novices’ Hurdle if the ground is not too soft, otherwise he will wait for Aintree.
The same race is on the agenda for Tuesday’s Taunton winner Granit Jack.
“We’ve got the measure of him now and I promise you there is nothing between him and (last year’s winner) Noland,” proclaimed his trainer.
Silverburn is more likely to go for the Ballymore Properties than the Supreme unless the ground came up very soft, while Ornais is still on course for the Brit Insurance event.
Of other runners, Gungadu will be ridden by Jamie Snowden in the National Hunt Chase, although he will remain in the Royal & SunAlliance should anything happen to Denman in the interim.
Desert Quest will run in the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle if it is faster ground and in the County Hurdle if it is softer, where he could be joined by Ouninpohja.
Nicholls also had encouraging things to say about Poquelin, who attempts to build upon his Christmas success at Kempton in Saturday’s Adonis Hurdle.
“He was very green when he ran first, but won nicely at Kempton and is improving enormously both mentally and physically.
“I’m not entirely convinced Cheltenham will suit him – he is perhaps better on a flat track but if he wins on Saturday, he goes for the JCB Triumph Hurdle.”