PAUL Nicholls believes Clan Des Obeaux is in the form of his life as the trainer looks to win a record-equalling fifth Cheltenham Gold Cup, the finale to the 2019 National Hunt Festival.
Twenty years after See More Business became his first winner of the blue riband race, the man who won three successive renewals in the late Nineties with Kauto Star (twice) and Denman is brimming with confidence.
Not only did Clan Des Obeaux – co-owned by football legend Sir Alex Ferguson – produce a career-best performance on Boxing Day when landing Kempton’s King George VI Chase under Harry Cobden, but Nicholls is enjoying a resurgent season.
He teamed up with 20-year-old Cobden to win Wednesday’s RSA Chase with Topofthegame, a potential Gold Cup contender next year, before Frodon won yesterday’s Ryanair Chase as Bryony Frost became the first female jockey to win a Grade One race at the Festival over jumps.
The question is whether Clan Des Obeaux, just seven, has the stamina for this supreme test, over three and quarter miles, that features Native River and Might Bite – the first two home last year – as well as the admirably consistent Definitly Red for Yorkshire.
Clan Des Obeaux then completed his Cheltenham preparations by winning the appropriately-named Denman Chase at Ascot last month.
“He is one of the favourites for the Gold Cup and he has had a great season this year,” said Nicholls last night.
“He won the King George very well and then he won well at Ascot well in the Denman Chase. Touch wood, everything has gone to plan since.
“From the day he won his first three-year-old hurdle we knew he was going to be a proper chaser. Last year we couldn’t train him the way we wanted him because he had babyish issues, which held us up all the time.
“Now we are where we want to be and of all the horses in the Gold Cup he is probably the improving yougster. Is he good enough to win a Gold Cup? Who knows. He is probably the best I’ve ever had, him, but he will need to be.”
Meanwhile, owner Philip Reynolds admits he is feeling the nerves before Presenting Percy’s Gold Cup quest.
Already a dual Festival winner, and trained in Ireland by the reclusive Pat Kelly, Presenting Percy’s only run this season was a winning one over hurdles at Gowran Park in January as connections waited for softer ground for Davy Russell’s mount. They even changed the configuration of a racecourse in Ireland so the horse, who carries the hopes of Ireland, could get some experience jumping right-handed ahead of this defining race.
Reynolds, whose late father Albert served as Taoiseach, said: “I don’t understand the whole ‘people’s horse’ thing, but he’s a horse that goes out and gives you everything he’s got.
“He puts it on the line every day he goes out, and I think people admire that.
“Pat is pleased with him, and it would of course be very special to win a Gold Cup on a number of levels. He’s been favourite for the Gold Cup since he won the RSA last year, and it’s very hard to put it out of your mind – particularly when you’re on the run-up to a race as well.
“But when we’re in the parade ring before a race it’s terrifying, to be honest.”
With conditions having turned in his favour hopes are high that Native River can become the first horse to win back-to-back renewals of the Gold Cup since three-time winner Best Mate (2002-2004).
Since his epic victory over Might Bite 12 months ago, Colin Tizzard’s bold-jumping chestnut, the mount of champion jockey Richard Johnson, has finished second in the Betfair Chase at Haydock and third in the King George VI Chase at Kempton.
Joe Tizzard, assistant to his father, said: “This race has been the plan all season – it is the first time he is going to get his perfect conditions and he comes here in great nick.”
Native River leads a three-strong Tizzard team, with Welsh Grand National winner Elegant Escape and the veteran Thistlecrack also in the mix.
Tizzard added: “I know Thistlecrack is 11, and he is not getting any younger, but he has not got loads of miles on the clock and on his day he is a fair horse.
“It is great to get him there after missing the race the last two seasons. He deserves to run in the Gold Cup. Elegant Escape is improving and is a young horse going in the right direction. He is entitled to run as well.
“If he can hold his position at the top of the hill then we know he won’t stop because he will keep galloping all the way to the line.”