Wetherby gives timely pointer to Nicholls on latest star

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the next Kauto Star? “Definitely not,” says Paul Nicholls with emphatic defiance as he talks about his rising star Silviniaco Conti who puts his steeplechasing credentials on the line today in Wetherby’s feature race of the year.

“There will never be another Kauto. He’s an irreplaceable legend,” says the champion trainer whose preparations for the bet365 Charlie Hall Chase have been dominated by the near-inevitable retirement of his record-breaking Gold Cup champion.

“Today will tell us whether Silviniaco Conti can progress to the next level. We will know a lot more after the race. Believe me, he’s a long way from being a Gold Cup horse but I do think he is improving. How good? Time will tell.”

Nicholls, champion trainer for the last seven seasons, is not being evasive. He is being realistic. He knows every promising horse that now passes through his all-conquering Ditcheat yard will be compared to Kauto Star, one of the all-time greats who won an improbable 16 races at Group One level. That is a price of success.

With iconic horses like Denman, Master Minded and Neptune Collonges also retired, the latter’s last-gasp victory in the Grand National enabling Nicholls to narrowly retain the trainer’s title from Nicky Henderson, the policeman’s son realises that this will be a season of transition.

There is little tension in his voice, despite the magnitude of Kauto Star’s retirement and media interest. The pressure, in many respects, is on Henderson, the beneficiary of a new generation of hurdlers and chasers destined for the top.

Yet one of National Hunt racing’s glorious certainties is its uncertainty – and Nicholls admits to being pleasantly surprised by this six-year-old who heads a select, six-strong Charlie Hall field that is regrettably bereft of Donald McCain’s 2011 winner Weird Al and the injury-plagued former Hennessy hero Diamond Harry, who has suffered yet another setback.

Nicholls was speaking following a dramatic day’s action at Wetherby yesterday which saw the trainer’s Sametegal confirm his rich promise in the Wensleydale Juvenile Hurdle – and 17-time champion jockey AP McCoy suffer facial injuries after parting company from Mr Watson on the way to the start in the opener.

“Silviniaco, he doesn’t show a lot at home, you know?” comments Nicholls. “He is just what he is, a strong galloping horse who will relish the good to soft conditions if he’s right.

“To be honest with you, he caught us by surprise when he won his first race for us at Bangor – young Ryan Mahon rode him that day rather than Ruby (Walsh) – then backed it up at Ascot and finished third to Menorah at the big Cheltenham meeting in December 2010. That’s good form.”

Third on his chasing debut at Chepstow in October last year to the highly-regarded Cue Card, the chestnut gelding got off the mark over fences exactly 12 months ago at Wincanton.

He then chased home the eyecatching grey Grands Crus in the Grade One Feltham Novices Chase at Boxing Day; Nicholls points out that Henderson’s Bobs Worth, a leading contender for this season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, was back in third.

Well-beaten at Ascot when the stable was being afflicted by a coughing virus, the young pretender was then an emphatic winner of a top novice chase at Aintree’s Grand National meeting, which is why he goes into today’s comeback as the clear favourite.

Nicholls has some doubts because the French import does not excel on the gallops, but he does point out two attributes that will reassure favourite backers.

First, Nicholls says the mercurial Walsh – his stable jockey and still the most successful big race rider in the sport – is “better than ever” this season. That is some praise.

Second, Silviniaco Conti is similar in stature and galloping to See More Business, the archetypal steeplechaser who won the 1999 Gold Cup before winning the Wetherby feature in 2000 and 2001.

Surprisingly, they are still the only victories that Nicholls has recorded in the Charlie Hall, although the aforementioned Neptune Collonges was second in 2006 to Our Vic.

“Back then, we thought Neptune as more of a Gold Cup horse – and he goes and wins the closest ever National six years on.

“That’s racing and why I don’t want to build up too many hopes with my horse today.

“He’s got a lot to prove, and do, before you can even think of a Gold Cup.”

It is a sentiment shared by Denis O’Regan, the former Northern-based jockey who rides Time For Rupert – the runner-up last year in the three-mile-plus test that celebrates the career of Charlie Hall, the one-time Champion Hurdle-winning trainer from Towton whose horses won a remarkable 169 races at Wetherby.

O’Regan took over the riding duties from the unfortunate Will Kennedy midway through last season and won a modest chase at Newbury before disappointing in the Argento Chase at Cheltenham. He then surprised many by finishing fourth behind Synchronised in the Gold Cup.

“Anyone could have ridden him in the Gold Cup and done the same thing. I’m very lucky to be the one who is doing the steering,” said O’Regan.

“They are all very good chasers today and I respect them all. As for the future, we’ll know more today.”

This select field sees Malton-born Andrew Tinkler ride Master Of The Hall for the aforementioned Henderson stable, while Midnight Chase represents trainer Neil Mulholland, who served his riding apprenticeship in North Yorkshire.

The line-up is completed by Hennessy runner-up Planet of Sound and Wayward Prince – a former course winner.

The field’s quality reflects the stature of the race – and it will be to Wetherby’s advantage if the winner becomes a future champion. As Paul Nicholls and Denis O’Regan intimated, the winner of National Hunt racing’s early-season curtain-raiser has to earn the right to dream about future glory.