Trainer plays down chance of lifting title
PAUL Nicholls rates his chances of regaining the NH trainers' championship in the next couple of years as "remote" – yet given a trouble-free run with his leading horses the Ditcheat maestro might just wrest the crown back from Nicky Henderson next April.
Last season Nicholls' seven-year reign was ended when he finished £550,000 behind his Lambourn rival. But the honours could have remained in Somerset had Nicholls enjoyed better fortune with four of his top performers.
Grade One winners Big Buck's, Al Ferof and Tidal Bay did not run beyond December through injury – and Silviniaco Conti might well have deprived Henderson's Bobs Worth of Cheltenham Gold Cup glory had he not fallen when going best of all three out.
Nicholls will look back at the 2012-13 campaign as one of "what if" and it is clear he is rebuilding his squad after the magnificence of Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded and Neptune Collonges.
Now he is looking to the new era of talent to step up to the plate to supplement the likes of Big Buck's, Al Ferof and Tidal Bay who are ready to resume their quest for NH riches this season along with Silviniaco Conti.
All four were among some 80 horses paraded by the trainer during Owners' Day at his HQ. He said of Big Buck's: "We have given him lots of time to recover from the minor leg injury that ruled him out after the Hennessy Gold Cup meeting last season and he's come back looking as good as ever – though he's got so fat at summer grass.
"He has spent two weeks on the horse-walker and will have six weeks of road-work. The plan is to go for a fifth World Hurdle at Cheltenham in March and to give him one prep run, probably the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January.
"He's been a wonderful horse and I see no reason why he shouldn't be as good as ever when he returns to the track."
Nicholls can't wait to return to the Cheltenham Festival with Silviniaco Conti: "He'll start in the Betfair Chase at Haydock Park in November – the race in which he beat Long Run last year – and then the King George will come into the equation but the Gold Cup is the number one target.
"He's only seven and will improve. In last season's Gold Cup he travelled really well and would have gone close – second or third at worse."
Al Ferof – winner of the Paddy Power Gold Cup on his solitary appearance last season under 11st 8lb – could well join him in the Gold Cup line-up.
Nicholls said: "We're very pleased with Al Ferof – he's been back in training for two weeks and had his first canter on Saturday. We'll target the King George at Christmas – I'm sure the 3m trip will suit – and his owner John Hales would love to run him in the Gold Cup."
Silviniaco Conti is proven at 3m and beyond and although Al Ferof has yet to race further than the 2m5f of the Paddy Power, on breeding the grey looks capable of staying the Gold Cup trip as he is by Dom Alco, sire of Grand National hero Neptune Collonges and Silviniaco Conti.
As for Tidal Bay, whose campaign ended after that dramatic Christmas victory in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown, Nicholls said: "He may be 12 but he is as good and as enthusiastic as ever. He looks fantastic and will follow the same programme as last season."
The Flemensfirth gelding opened the campaign by winning the John Smith's Grade Two hurdle at Wetherby in November and followed with a splendid second in the Hennessy Gold Cup giving 6lb to Bobs Worth.
Another on the injured list and making a good recovery is Daryl Jacob, the Irishman who took over as stable jockey from Ruby Walsh at the end of last season.
Jacob, who turned 30 last week, hopes to be back by the beginning of October following surgery on a shoulder injury in July. He has been having daily stints at Wincanton Sports Centre to strengthen the shoulder and keep himself fit.
"The injury has responded well and I have kept my weight in check," said the rider who attended Owners' Day with wife Kelly and new-born son Harry.
By David Briers