Cheltenham Countdown: Nicholls back at the Topofthegame

Paul Nicholls is back. It’s not because he has better horses – though of course that helps – but because the swagger of the man who dominated the Cheltenham Gold Cup – and the Cheltenham Festival as a whole – around the turn of the century has returned.

As a result, the welcome to Ditcheat on Tuesday was effusive as ever, but tinged with much more confidence than recent seasons, thanks in part to saddling his 3,000th winner, as well as eight winners in one afternoon, within the space of a week earlier this month.

Trainer : Paul Nicholls
Trainer : Paul Nicholls Picture: (Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Nicholls explained: "It’s the most excited I have been about the Cheltenham Festival for a while. It isn't the be-all and end-all but everyone wants runners. The team and the staff are all very excited for it. I get nervous about it, you are always thinking about it.”

The ten-time Champion Trainer has had plenty of time to think about the plan of action ("From the day he first won a hurdle, we knew he was going to be a proper three-mile chaser”) with Clan des Obeaux, the leading Gold Cup contender having been with the yard since transferring from France in the summer of 2015.

Frodon Picture: (Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

That he was able to finish sixth in a good-ground Triumph the following spring says plenty about the horse, who ran to a very smart level on all four starts last season, but has taken his form to another stratosphere in this, his third campaign over fences.

"He ran well in the Betfair Chase on his first start of the season at Haydock in November (fourth) and we knew he would improve enormously from that day to Kempton (where he won the King George VI Chase),” said Nicholls.

Topofthegame Picture: (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

“And then he absolutely murdered a dual Grade 1 winner in Terrefort in the Denman Chase. It was good to see him travel so well, jump brilliantly, and then quicken all the way to the line.

"Touch wood, everything has gone to plan, he looks great, came out of the race very well and he is just progressive.

"It's hard to compare him with our other Gold Cup winners, but Kauto Star won his first when he was seven (2007) and so Clan des Obeaux is the right age for the race.”

Clan des Obeaux may be the right age for the race, and it looks very much the right race for him (for all he’s yet to race over the extra two furlongs), but is it the perfect fit for Frodon?

The Cotswold Chase winner has been deliberately kept fresh for a return trip to Cheltenham next month, though Nicholls will wait and see which race looks like providing the massively improved performer with the best opportunity – rather than any fears over the longer distance – before committing.

“I'm not worried about the trip in the Gold Cup, we'll keep our options open and decide next week.

"We don't want to run in the Gold Cup for the sake of it if we think we can win the Ryanair."

The Ryanair has eluded Nicholls since he won two of the first three renewals – with Thisthatandtother in 2005 and Taranis two years later – and it’s also been quite a wait between drinks in the RSA, with Denman’s 2007 success the last time that Nicholls emerged victorious. He’s hopeful that will change this year, though, with his bullishness levels rising to 11 when asked about the gigantic Topofthegame.

He said: "He's got lots of ability. He was a good hurdler last season; he won a £100,000 handicap at Sandown and then he got beaten by a head in the Coral Cup at the Festival.

"We went chasing this year and it was a bit of a disaster on his first run. Basically, the flag went down at the start, and he got spooked and panicked, and gave them all about 25-30 lengths. Having said that, he did jump brilliantly and managed to finish in second to Defi du Seuil.

"Then he went to Kempton over Christmas in the Kauto Star Novices' Chase, and he finished second behind La Bague Au Roi, who won a Grade 1 the other day, which again, is really good form.”

t’s no surprise that Topofthegame has been well backed for the RSA, for all that he’ll face a stiff examination of both his class and stamina when tackling the likes of Santini, and – in particular – Delta Work.

Work. While there has clearly been a lot of hard graft behind the scenes to get the yard’s team of young horses sourced, schooled and trained, you get the impression that, while Nicholls has enjoyed the challenge of such a transitional period, he’s much more comfortable when dealing with the pressure of saddling the big horses on the big days.

It’s not easy replacing Kauto Star, Denman, Silviniaco Conti et al, but it appears, several years down the line, that Nicholls has done just that.

“We're hopeful he’ll run well”, in various incarnations, was one of the more commonly heard tailpieces when he discussed a lot of his Festival hopes. It’s hard not to leave Ditcheat with the feeling that it’s only the imaginary politician in Nicholls that prevented him from replacing ‘hopeful’ with ‘convinced’.

Paul Nicholls is back.