Nicholls sweet on Saphir ahead of World Hurdle bid
David Metcalf | February 25, 2016
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls has no high-profile favourites heading into next month’s Cheltenham Festival, but his record at the meeting suggests he will not be leaving empty-handed.
The Ditcheat handler has not drawn a blank at the four-day spectacular since 2002, and has bagged 37 Festival successes so far.
Nicholls knows what is required to get a horse to peak at exactly the right time for the big occasion, and is sweet on the Cheltenham odds of Saphir Du Rheu in this year’s World Hurdle granted good ground.
In his own words, here are Nicholls thoughts on some of his main Festival contenders, which gets underway on Tuesday, March 15th:
Saphir Du Rheu (World Hurdle)
Current odds: 12/1
“Saphir Du Rheu finished second in last year’s World Hurdle and then he went chasing and won the Grade One at Aintree,” said Nicholls.
“The idea was to go for the Hennessy this season and he won an intermediate chase at Carlisle. He ran OK in the Hennessy off 11st 12lb to finish fifth on very testing ground. He travelled well to two out and then didn’t really finish.
“He did not run any race in the Long Walk just before Christmas and faded. We were always suspicious of his breathing and straight after Ascot he had a breathing operation – we cauterised his soft palate, which Silviniaco Conti had done after the King George, and that has helped him.
“His best runs last season were on decent ground so on better ground I think you will see him in a completely different light. He ran very well in last year’s World Hurdle and obviously is a high-class horse.
“If we get good spring ground at Cheltenham, like it was last year, he and the horse who won it last year (Cole Harden) will be big players again in the World Hurdle.”
Aux Ptits Soins (World Hurdle)
Current odds: 14/1
“He is a very smart horse and is unbeaten over hurdles. It has been a nightmare training him this season as he had an infection in his foot, then a sinus problem which he had surgery for and two lots of surgery on a tooth.
“So he had three lots of surgery before Christmas, which was not ideal. He had a month on a water treadmill back at his owner’s place (John Hales). He came to us on January 1 and he has had one racecourse gallop already with Saphir Du Rheu and he will also run in the World Hurdle.
“Obviously, I would have liked to have run him so we are on the back foot a little bit, but he is coming on nicely,” Nicholls added.
“He won the Coral Cup last year in effect first time up but it is a big ask to go on from winning a handicap off 139 to taking a Grade One. He will be chasing next season. He has got loads of pace and the trip must be a question mark though all by his sire stay well. He looks fantastic.”
Dodging Bullets (Queen Mother Champion Chase)
Current odds: 10/1
Dodging Bullets won last year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase, the feature contest on the second day of the Cheltenham Festival. A splint held up his preparation this season and he has only had one run – at Newbury in a Grade 2 race when a 10-length second behind Top Gamble.
Nicholls said: “It has been a nightmare with Dodge all season until he ran the other day. He was beat first time out last year and needed the run at Newbury. He is a very good work horse at home and you probably feel he is more forward than he is.
“He had a long time off before Newbury where he travelled well until three out and then got tired in the ground. He needed the run more than we thought. He has improved a lot for that and likes Cheltenham and better ground.
“He has a mountain to climb to beat Un De Sceaux who looks very good. I think all the others are much of a muchness and am hopeful of an improved run.
Le Mercurey (RSA Chase or Ultima Handicap Chase)
Current RSA odds: 33/1
“He is the RSA Chase and the three-mile handicap on the first day, the Ultima,” Nicholls continued when asked about Le Mercurey. “He went up 7lb for running so well at Ascot on Saturday and is now on the mark of 147. I think the last two winners of the RSA were rated 146 and 147 if I am not mistaken.
“He probably ran a career best on Saturday and looked like winning until the last. He just propped at the last and landed in a heap, finishing third. I put cheek pieces on him on Saturday and he was much more enthusiastic.
“If we run him at all at Cheltenham, I suspect it will be in the RSA and I hope the ground is soft – he loves soft ground.”
Old Guard (Champion Hurdle)
Current Coral odds: 20/1
“He is a lively outsider for the Champion Hurdle. He looks really well,” Nicholls added of Old Guard, who has three wins over course and distance round Prestbury Park, including the Grade 2 International Hurdle, this season.
“If I hadn’t run him at Kempton on Boxing Day he would be a lot shorter price, having won three races at Cheltenham this season.
“I probably should not have run him in the Christmas Hurdle but hindsight is a wonderful thing. He has had a month off to freshen him up. He can go to Cheltenham fresh and he will love better ground.
“If you can forgive him his last run, he has a chance of being in the frame. He does like Cheltenham and is still improving.”
Politologue (Coral Cup)
Current odds: 14/1
“He is a fine big grey horse and won a Listed novice hurdle at Exeter last week, basically an egg and spoon race in the end, and he won by 59 lengths. He was second in the Challow before that.
“He is in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle still but almost certainly will run in the Coral Cup. He is a really nice horse – he may not be as well handicapped as Aux Ptits Soins last year but he will run well in the Coral Cup.
“I don’t know if he is well handicapped off 142, but he will run a tidy race. It took a bit of time for him to acclimatise.
“Whatever he does, he is going to be an awesome chaser next season. He is getting better and better and could not have more won any more easily at Exeter. He won on very heavy the other day but I suspect, like many others, will appreciate better ground.”
Vibrato Valtat (Ryanair Chase)
Current odds: 12/1
“Vibrato Valtat has had a good season. He won the Haldon Gold Cup and ran solid races in the Tingle Creek and Clarence House Chase.
“Two miles is sharp enough for him – he is always flat out – and I am going to step him up in trip to the Ryanair Chase and think two miles and five furlongs will suit him very well.
“He is a better horse nice and fresh. He keeps on trying and he will run a good race in the Ryanair.”
Be sure to visit Coral’s Cheltenham page for all the latest news and tips in the build-up and during the Festival.