Paul Nicholls opened the gates of Manor Farm Stables in Ditcheat, Somerset this morning to members of the media in a stable visit organised by Cheltenham Racecourse and gave updates on his leading contenders for The Festival™ presented by Magners next month (Tuesday, March 12 to Friday, March 15).
A 10-time champion Jump trainer in Britain (2005/06, 2006/07, 2007/08, 2008/09. 2009/10, 2010/11, 2011/12, 2013/14, 2014/15 & 2015/16), Nicholls is enjoying a stellar season this term, having recently saddled his 3,000th career winner courtesy of Capitaine in a handicap hurdle at Taunton a week ago and currently leads the Jump trainers' championship from Nicky Henderson, with the handler training eight winners, a new personal record, on Saturday, February 16.
Nicholls has sent out 43 winners at The Festival™ presented by Magners, the third-highest total ever and has won the Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award six times. He has landed Jump racing's Blue Riband event, the G1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup, on four occasions - See More Business (2000), Kauto Star (2007 & 2009) and Denman (2008). The trainer looks to have another live contender for this year's renewal of the £625,000 contest in the shape of Clan Des Obeaux, who is vying for ante-post favouritism for the feature race of The Festival, along with Irish raider Presenting Percy.
Clan Des Obeaux stamped his mark on the staying chase division with a commanding success in the G1 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, defeating fellow Gold Cup contenders Thistlecrack and Native River - last year's winner - in the three-mile event. A smooth winner of the rearranged G2 Betfair Denman Chase at Ascot earlier this month, the seven-year-old son of Kapgarde is yet to win in four starts at Cheltenham, but Nicholls is bullish of a bold showing in the G1 event.
Discussing Clan Des Obeaux, who is owned by Mr & Mrs Paul Barber, Ged Mason and former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, Nicholls said: "He is in good form and one of the favourites for the Gold Cup.
"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. Clan Des Obeaux went and won the King George very well and then did it nicely at Ascot in the Denman Chase.
"Touch wood, everything has gone to plan, he looks great, came out of the race very well and he is just progressive.
"We keep thinking that the Betfair Denman Chase was a soft race at Ascot the other day, but he beat a dual G1 winner in Terrefort and absolutely murdered him. It was good to see him travel so well, jump brilliantly, wing the last at Ascot and then quicken all the way to the line.
"He had been a bit babyish and last year we could not train him as we wanted. Clan Des Obeaux had a splint which held us up, but from the day he first won a hurdle, we knew he was going to be a proper three-mile chaser. He hasn't won at Cheltenham in four starts, but he has run very well there on three occasions, including when carrying top-weight in the 2017 Caspian Caviar Gold Cup as a five-year-old, losing to a horse who had 10st 2lb [Guitar Pete].
"He was still learning about the job last year, but now we are where we want to be. He is a more experienced horse who has matured and has done the talking himself on his last two runs. We're really excited about running him in the Gold Cup.
"Clan Des Obeaux looks great in his coat and for a prep race, everything went super at Ascot. Out of all the horses in the Gold Cup, he is the improving youngster. A lot of his rivals are exposed horses - we don't know where Clan Des Obeaux will end up.
"Kauto Star won his first Gold Cup when he was seven  and so Clan Des Obeaux is the right age for the race. With some luck in running, fingers crossed he can run a big race.
"Clan Des Obeaux keeps winning and he is just a good horse. It's hard to compare him with our other Gold Cup winners."
Discussing Clan Des Obeaux's chief market rival in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Pat Kelly-trained Presenting Percy, who has run just once over hurdles this season, Nicholls continued: "We all know about horses like Native River and Thistlecrack, but Presenting Percy is one horse who might just still be improving.
"Any Gold Cup is hard to win, but Presenting Percy is a good horse and he won well over hurdles on his only start this season. He jumps well and has won an RSA, so I don't think him not running over fences this year is as big a problem as people are making out.
"He is clearly a high-class horse and that is the most important thing. They may have preferred getting a run into him, but I would very much respect Presenting Percy if he turned up."
Nicholls may be doubly represented in the three and a quarter-mile Magner Cheltenham Gold Cup courtesy of the ultra-consistent Frodon, who is set to be partnered by leading female jockey and regular pilot Bryony Frost.
The seven-year-old son of Nickname has enjoyed a tremendous season, being successful on three of his four starts, latterly when capturing the G2 BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase (3m 1f 56y) at Cheltenham on Festival Trials Day on January 26, his first victory over further than two miles and five furlongs.
Nicholls is yet to decide whether Frodon will head for the Gold Cup on Friday, March 15, with question marks raised by pundits regarding the gelding's stamina, or the £350,000 G1 Ryanair Chase over an extended two and a half miles (St Patrick's Thursday, March 14).
He revealed today: "There has been a lot of debate as to what race he is going to run in at The Festival. He is in the Ryanair and the Gold Cup. I will confirm him for both and then will make a plan what we run him in depending on who is going to run in what race.
"We will run him in the race where we think he has the best chance. I'm not worried about the trip in the Gold Cup as he will gallop and stay all day, but it will be a tougher race than the Ryanair over a longer trip and the Ryanair may cut up, so we will keep our options open and we will decide either next week or even on the Tuesday of The Festival when we'll have to declare him for one or the other.
"We'll keep our options open with Frodon, but he is a tough horse who keeps on improving. He jumps and gallops and is rated 169 now having taken his form to a new level this year and is up there with the best - he will give a good account of himself whatever.
"Frodon has just improved and improved. He's enjoyed a great season and won the Old Roan Chase at Aintree first time out, before finishing second in the BetVictor Gold Cup at The November Meeting where we probably rode him with too much restraint.
"We changed tactics on him for the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup where we made the running again and then he won the Cotswold Chase the other day. Last time out, he jumped and travelled well, but to be honest we left a little bit to work on and that is why he got a bit tired in the closing stages as he probably just needed the run.
"It was like it was his first run of the season again. Last year, Frodon ran in the Ascot Chase behind Waiting Patiently and that race finished his season as it was a real hard race and he was then way over the top at Aintree and Cheltenham. This season, we have purposely not run him since Cheltenham in January to keep him fresh and well."
Paul Nicholls with Clan Des Obeaux (left) and Frodon
Clan Des Obeaux
The imposing Topofthegame is viewed as a long-term Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup prospect, but at this year's meeting, the seven-year-old son of Flemensfirth takes the next step on the path to stardom in the £175,000 G1 RSA Insurance Novices' Chase (Ladies Day, Wednesday, March 13) over three miles.
"Topofthegame was beaten a length and a half by the tenacious La Bague Au Roi in the G1 Kauto Star Novices' Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, but Nicholls is adamant that a stiff, galloping test at Cheltenham will see the gelding in a much better light.
"Topofthegame has entries in both the RSA Chase and the JLT Novices' Chase, but he is almost certain to run in the RSA", reported Nicholls. "This is probably one of the tallest horses you'll see in training.
"He has lots of ability and was a good hurdler. He got beat a head in the Coral Cup at The Festival last year. He has gone chasing this year and on his first run forfeited 20 lengths when he panicked at the start, but he jumped brilliantly that day and finished second to Defi Du Seuil there at Exeter.
"He finished second at Kempton over Christmas in the Kauto Star to La Bague Au Roi and that is good form. Turning for home, he looked like the winner there, but the minute he hit the front, he was a little bit green. We purposely haven't run him since, he goes well fresh and we're looking forward to running him. Hopefully, we can go on to Aintree with him, he is a high-class chaser in the making, jumps nicely, has lots of class and is one of our big chances at Cheltenham. He looks good in his skin and has just come right. One thing he does do is jump very well."
Quel Destin has emerged as the leading British-trained hope for the two-mile £125,000 G1 JCB Triumph Hurdle at The Festival™ presented by Magners following a fine start to his career with the Ditcheat handler.
The four-year-old son of Muhtathir is unbeaten in his last five runs and ran out a convincing winner of the William Hill Victor Ludorum Juvenile Hurdle at Haydock Park on February 16.
Quel Destin's other notable victories this term included G2 victories at Cheltenham and Doncaster, along with a thrilling neck success in the G1 Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow over Christmas.
Discussing the French-bred gelding, Nicholls commented: "Quel Destin is towards the top of the market for the Triumph Hurdle. He has won his last five races for us, having got beat at Chepstow first time up when he was inexperienced. He's not been beat since, has won a couple of G2s including at Cheltenham and also won a G1 at Chepstow in December.
"He won the Victor Lodorum well the other day and I was surprised how well he won at Haydock because he looked quite big as if he would need the run which he did, but he still managed to win. He is a proper tough four-year-old which you need in a Triumph.
"He can either make the running or jump off and sit handy. Quel Destin jumps well and keeps galloping so he is one of our leading chances at Cheltenham. This lad has it all and is a proper jumping horse. He keeps winning and is getting better with every run."
Pic D'Orhy is yet to run in Britain having joined the stable from France, but could join Quel Destin in the two-mile juvenile hurdling showpiece of The Festival 2019 on Friday, March 15.
The four-year-old son of Turgeon won on three of his seven starts in France and finished second on his final run for Francois Nicolle at Auteuil in November.
Nicholls commented: "Pic D'Orhy is a very interesting juvenile from France. His mark in this country based on his French form is 149 and he is a possible for the Triumph Hurdle.
"That rating is up there with the best juveniles in Britain and Ireland. He is a proper, big chasing type of horse who we bought with the future in mind. His form is excellent and we took him to Wincanton last week for a racecourse gallop and we were thrilled with what we saw.
"I was going to run him at Kelso on Saturday, but he is not qualified for a novice hurdle there because he won a novice hurdle in France in March, therefore you are eligible to run in juvenile hurdles in this country, but not against older horses.
"I wanted to run him with a view to see where we were, so I will either go straight for the Triumph with him or go to Aintree. He has a lot of ability and we would probably run in the Triumph if the ground was on the soft side, but if not we will wait for Aintree. He is a horse we are all very excited about here."
Another exciting novice at Manor House Stables is Grand Sancy, who is set to tackle The Festival's traditional curtain-raiser, the £125,000 G1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Tuesday, March 12). The five-year-old son of Diamond Boy finished a fine second to fellow Supreme Novices' Hurdle candidate Elixir De Nutz in the G1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown in January, before producing a game front-running performance to plunder the G2 Kingwell Hurdle from more experienced hurdlers at Wincanton last time out.
"Grand Sancy will run in the Supreme Novices' and is rated 152 which is high for a novice", commented Nicholls. "He's had a great season and after being narrowly beaten in the Tolworth, he won well in the Kingwell Hurdle, beating Sceau Royal and Vision Des Flos. He gave them weight at Wincanton and really toughed it out with a good performance for a novice.
"He looks fantastic and has come out of the race well. Grand Sancy is every bit as good as Noland  and Al Ferof  who are our other past winners of the Supreme. He is probably quite a big price for the Supreme. Al Dancer is favourite and he is rated the same as Grand Sancy - I don't think there is much between those two.
"Our lad jumps well, is tough and is an end-to-end galloper. He has done nothing but improve and this is an open race. The last novice we had to win a Kingwell was Azertyuiop who went on to win an Arkle  and Champion Chase , so it would be nice to think this lad could go on too and he'll go novice chasing next season. Grand Sancy is in the form of his life and we're looking forward to running him in the Supreme."
Veteran Pacha Du Polder is attempting to become the first three-time winner of the St James's Place Foxhunter Chase, following victories under Bryony Frost in 2017 and Harriet Tucker in 2018. The 12-year-old son of Muthathir, who also finished fifth in the three and a quarter-mile contest under former Olympic champion Victoria Pendleton in 2016, was a well-beaten fifth on his first start since the Festival 2018 in a hunters' chase at Haydock Park on February 16.
Nicholls confirmed that he runs in the contest along with Wonderful Charm, adding: "Pacha did his first normal ordinary run. He just had a run round. He has come back from that run and is a lot sharper. Cheltenham seems to suit him when they go flat out and you can just ride him in behind and pass a few horses.
"He seems to know when to go at Cheltenham. This will be his last run unless Andy [Stewart, owner] changes his mind and Megan [Nicholls, daughter] will then have him for hunting. He is brilliant at that so he will always have a good home here."
He also confirmed targets for: Brio Conti (Coral Cup, Wednesday, March 13), Capitaine (Randox Health Country Handicap Hurdle, Friday, March 15), Capeland, Brelan D'As & Movewiththetimes (Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase, Tuesday, March 12).
Paul Nicholls' team walking in Ditcheat today
Other horses mentioned by Nicholls at today's media event were:
Posh Trish: "She runs in the G2 Dawn Run Mares' Novice Hurdle (St Patrick's Thursday, March 14) and is a lovely mare. She is one of the highest rated novice hurdlers. She has had plenty of experience over hurdles winning four times. She is tough, gallops and has good form - she is a real proper mare.
"She would like some cut in the ground and would probably like to run over a bit further, but we'll make plenty of use of her. It's nice to have such a good mare to run in the race and she will be a great chaser in time. She goes well fresh and we purposely haven't run her since Christmas because she had been very busy in the early part of the season. She doesn't need any more experience and we think she has got a great chance and we're hopeful of a big run."
Friend Or Foe: "He runs in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Wednesday, March 13) and we have always thought he could be a type for this race when we bought him last summer in France when he got some nice experience in two races over there. He needed a bit of time, we looked after him and won nicely at Taunton when making all the running over Christmas.
"He is rated 128 and we purposely haven't run him since as it's pointless his mark going up another 7lb. Off 128, he would get into the race towards the bottom of the handicap in the last few years. He went to Wincanton last week and galloped really nicely. He is a typical French horse who did a lot of jumping when he was out there and we've done a lot of schooling with him as well. We would be very hopeful of a good run in the Fred Winter."
Getaway Trump:"He finished fourth in the Betfair Hurdle at Ascot the other day and things just didn't quite go right for him. He is a hold-up horse, but they went no gallop at all and he got caught a little bit behind before staying on. He really wants two and a half-miles.
"He is entered in the £50,000 G2 Premier Kelso Novices' Hurdle on Saturday which is tempting and if I did that, then I would go to Aintree. On the other hand, he is still only rated 143 and he has good form behind Champ in the Challow Hurdle, so he could either go for the Ballymore [Wednesday, March 13] or the Coral Cup [Wednesday, March 13] and I suspect that I could end up running him in the Coral Cup because I think he is very capable of going well off 143. If Champ goes and wins the Ballymore, then Getaway Trump would be one of the leading lights for the Coral Cup."
Magic Saint: "He won over fences at Wincanton recently. He has taken a little bit of time to come to hand and he was impressive last time out. He jumped and travelled well and I have always been training him with the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual [Friday, March 15] in mind which is the plan.
"I think he has a leading chance in that because he is a young, improving horse who will just keep going forward - we really like him. We got him from France and a lot of the French horses we train just take a bit of time to get used to our routine and way of training. The style of running over here is completely different to what it is in France and he got the hang of it at Wincanton the other day. Hopefully, he might he be better than a handicapper in time."
Give Me A Copper: "He is the current favourite for the Ultima Handicap Chase [Tuesday, March 12] and is a very talented horse. He won a novice chase for us at Kempton last year before sustaining an injury and he missed the rest of the season. He came back at Sandown the other day with a big weight and ran a real good fourth. He travelled and jumped well before getting a bit tired from the back of the second last. He had not been even anywhere for a gallop and I had purposely left him so that race would bring him on.
"The plan is to go for the Ultima and then hopefully onto the Grand National. He does not have a great deal of experience, but he is a solid jumper and is a classy horse. I would be very hopeful of a big run from him at The Festival."
Le Prezien: "Le Prezien won last year's Johnny Henderson Grand Annual and he will go for that race again (Friday, March 15). He is slightly behind in his coat, but looks quite well. He is a 1lb higher [rating of 151] than when he won at The Festival last year.
"He finished seventh on his latest run at Sandown [February 2], but doesn't really want it too soft. He is a funny horse who seems to really come good in the spring. He is probably handicapped right on his limit and last year, everything went well for him in the Grand Annual. They went fast early on, the ground was soft and he stayed on well up the hill to win. He just needs to sharpen his jumping up a little bit, but if he does that then he not without a chance in this year's race."
Capeland: "I might run him in the Arkle (Tuesday, March 12). He ran well at Chepstow last weekend and is progressing all the time. He could outrun his odds and make the frame. I think the Arkle could cut up, so he may go there. He needed the run on Saturday at Chepstow and travelled a bit too well. He is not the easiest to win with, but is progressive and a real solid jumper. He will have to find a bit to win an Arkle, but he could go ok in that."
Discussing his horses heading to The Festival, Nicholls continued: "We have a lovely team. Everything has gone so well this season and the horses have been running brilliantly.
"Cheltenham is the Olympics of our sport and I've always said that it is not the be-all and end-all, but at the same time, it is nice to have winners there. The whole team and staff are excited about this year's meeting.
"I still get very nervous about Cheltenham and in the weeks leading up, you never stop thinking about it as you don't want anything to go wrong. It's great to have a team led by a horse who is fancied for the Gold Cup. I've got a lot of nice horses for The Festival this year.
"Last season, we had 124 winners and around £2.5 million in prize money, but I never thought the horses were really right funnily enough. Our horses were still winning, but I felt for whatever reason that some of our horses didn't run to their best.
"This season, I've been delighted with the horses and it's been special to land our 3,000th winner and have eight winners the other day was just the most amazing day. The horses have run consistently well.
"We have tweaked a few things, such as the gallops' surfaces, which has made a bit of a difference, but we also just have some very nice horses this year. We've just been in a really good place for the horses and you just can't do it without the horses."