Conti in knockout shape ahead of Gold Cup bid says Paul Nicholls
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls is sending a more select team to the Cheltenham Festival this year, and believes Silviniaco Conti has a “massive chance” of making it third time lucky in the Gold Cup.
The Ditcheat handler is the second most successful trainer ever at the Festival with 34 winners, and is on course for a ninth trainers’ title after a fantastic start to the season.
Nicholls’ undoubted proven star in his team for this year’s four-day spectacular, which gets underway on Tuesday, March 10th, is dual King George winner Silvinaico Conti.
The nine-year-old will be competing in the Gold Cup on Friday, March 13th, having fallen in 2013 and finished fourth last year.
Silviniaco is currently Coral’s 3/1 favourite for the 3m 2f contest, and Nicholls reports the gelding to be in terrific shape.
Speaking at media day at his stables’, he said: “Silviniaco Conti looks fantastic in his coat and way better than he did at this time last year. He is in really good order.
“He won the Betfair Chase at Haydock first time out with cheekpieces on, which I put on because he was just racing a bit lazily. He then won the King George very nicely at Kempton Park. He made all the running and it was probably a career-best performance. He is finishing his races strongly this year which he didn’t do last year.
“We found last year that he was suffering quite badly from gastric ulcers. We are on top of that now and the cheekpieces have made his jumping sharper.
“He is very fit and we hope for a bit better luck than last year. He ran very well at Cheltenham in the Bula over hurdles and was travelling oh so well when he fell three out in the Gold Cup two years ago and last year he jumped the last in front. On form, he has a massive chance.”
Nicholls will also be represented by Sam Winner in the Gold Cup, and believes the improving gelding – who is 25/1 with Coral – to be a live outsider. He said: “Sam Winner has done nothing but improve this season. He won first time out at Cheltenham and then at Aintree.
“I ran him in the Lexus in Ireland over Christmas and he finished third – probably a career-best. He goes well fresh, loves Cheltenham and is a real live outsider. He will love a fast gallop and better ground at Cheltenham. The Lexus form is good.”
Nicholls will run Dodging Bullets (4/1) and Mr Mole (8/1) in the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday, March 11th, and is sweet on the chances of both.
“Dodging Bullets probably on form deserves to be the favourite for the Champion Chase but he is not. He has had a fantastic season – he needed his first race this season at Cheltenham and has improved since then, ” said Nicholls.
“He won the Tingle Creek at Sandown and then the Clarence House nicely at Ascot the other day, beating Sprinter Sacre. He had plenty left in the tank. He likes soft ground and I would not want it to dry up too much for Cheltenham. He is a really staying two-miler.
“The Champion Chase is run on the Old Course which I think is an easy two miles so I would like to see the ground quite testing. He is in really good form.
“Mr Mole maybe deserves the title of the most improved horse in training. He has won his last four races and followed what Master Minded did. Master Minded won the Champion Chase the same season. I hope that is a good omen.
“He is on a roll at the moment and and has a great chance in a very open Champion Chase with the two heroes coming back and the improving horses coming on through and he is one of them.”
The trainer hopes to have two runners in the World Hurdle, Saphir Du Rheu (9/2) and Zarkandar (4/1), on Thursday, March 12th.
Nicholls said: “Saphir Du Rheu ended up last season rated 165 over hurdles. He went chasing and unfortunately parted company with Sam (Twiston-Davies) first time, won well at Exeter and then had a fall at Kempton over Christmas.
“We thought, as he is still a young horse and the World Hurdle is wide open, we would try him back over hurdles.
“He won the Cleeve Hurdle and stayed on really strongly up the hill which has put him in the forefront of the betting for the World Hurdle. He gallops and jumps and I think there is a lot of improvement to come.
“Sam has decided to ride him rather than Zarkandar and that was a close call. Zarkandar won the JCB Triumph Hurdle four years ago and has had a great season, winning the French Champion Hurdle in the autumn very nicely and getting beaten a short-head in the Long Walk at Ascot when pulling himself up in front.
“We have keep him fresh for Cheltenham this year on purpose as he is so much better when fresh. I think he has a fantastic chance.”
Others among what looks a strong team for Nicholls include Wonderful Charm (Ryanair Chase), Southfield Theatre (RSA Chase), Vibrato Valtat (Arkle Chase), Calipto (Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle), Ptit Zig (JLT Novices’ Chase), Bouvreuil (Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle), Le Mercurey (Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle) and Caid Du Berlais (Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate).