“There will never be another Kauto Star,” the champion trainer told me before ‘Silvi’ jumped into the public’s consciousness with a breathtaking win in Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase just days after it was confirmed that steeplechasing’s supreme crowdpleaser had raced for the final time.
Now Nicholls says that he wouldn’t swap Silviniaco Conti “for any horse in the Cheltenham Gold Cup line-up” – a claim that is indicative of the improvement in the Wetherby winner this season.
Speaking ahead of today’s Betfred Denman Chase at Newbury where the rising star will complete his Cheltenham build-up, Nicholls said: “He is the odds-on favourite but be aware that I have left a lot to work on.
“I am keen to get a run into him before Cheltenham to fine-tune him. I purposely gave him Christmas off to have a fresh horse at this stage.
“Fitness-wise, he is probably in a similar place to where he was before he won the Charlie Hall, namely that he is fit enough to do himself justice but he will improve enormously for the run.
“So while defeat here would be disappointing, it wouldn’t be disastrous. Remember, Kauto Star only scrambled home in this race by a neck from L’Ami before winning at Cheltenham in 2007. This is a stepping stone to the big one, don’t forget that.”
Despite playing down expectations, the comparisons between Silviniaco Coni and Kauto Star are pertinent.
After his dominant Wetherby win, Silviniaco Conti made a winning transition to Grade One level in Haydock’s Betfair Chase – a race won by Kauto Star at the outset of his glittering career.
The similarities do not end here. Silviniaco Conti is now a seven-year-old, the same age as Kauto Star when the latter was on the cusp of racing greatness.
Like Kauto Star, today’s favourite will be ridden by the mercurial Ruby Walsh – who has decided to race at Newbury today rather than compete at Leopardstown’s prestigious Irish Hennessy meeting when many of the Emerald Isle’s best Cheltenham contenders are in action.
This is significant ahead of a race which salutes Kauto Star’s great rival and stablemate Denman. It implies that Silviniaco Conti will be his Gold Cup horse next month, an assertion that could not have been made with confidence prior to the Charlie Hall.
Walsh’s confidence is justified. In finishing second to the now injury-prone Grands Crus in the 2011 Feltham Novices Chase at Kempton, Silviniaco Conti still finished ahead of Nicky Henderson’s Bobs Worth, the current ante-post favourite for Cheltenham’s blue riband race.
Silviniaco Conti will be taken on by last season’s Gold Cup runner-up The Giant Bolster, trained by David Bridgwater and the mount of Tom Scudamore.
Beaten by the Nicholls horse in the Betfair Chase, and then pulled up in the King George, Bridgwater is bullish. “He’s been in great form and won’t mind the ground, but I suppose better ground helps everyone,” he said.
Meanwhile, Philip Hobbs steps Menorah up to three miles for the first time following his Peterborough Chase success over an extended two-and-a-half miles at Kempton over Christmas.
Ante-post favourite My Tent Or Yours will try to turn around a dreadful week for JP McManus in the Betfair Hurdle.
The Irish owner has been hit with the death on the track of Champion Hurdle prospect Darlan at Doncaster, a season-ending injury to the promising Ned Buntline and the loss of the broodmare Like-A-Butterfly.
Still in his novice season, Mr Tent Or Yours – the mount of champion jockey AP McCoy – heads a team of six from the Henderson stable.
In other racing news, Simonsig could possibly have a run in the Pendil Novices’ Chase at Kempton on February 23 before the dashing grey’s date with destiny at next month’s Cheltenham Festival.
The grey is odds-on favourite for the Arkle Trophy but misses today’s Game Spirit Chase after producing a slightly below-par trachea wash.
He is trained by the aforementioned Henderson who said: “It’s a pity. I wanted to run him, but I couldn’t and he needs a quiet week now.”
Henderson’s Golden Hoof was a significant winner at Bangor yesterday. Not only is the hurdler owned by golfer Lee Westwood and sports agent Chubby Chandler, but he was piloted to victory by Malton’s Andrew Tinkler and is ridden out by promising young conditional Eddie Linehan, who was previously attached to Ferdy Murphy’s North Yorkshire yard. He has been ironing out the horse’s quirkes on the gallops.
Alasi was a notable winner of Kempton’s Graduation Chase. A leading contender for the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, she claimed the scalp of the highly-regarded Champion Court under Guiseley’s Dominic Elsworth.
Today’s Warwick card sees the reappearance of Drumshambo who won Wetherby’s Castleford Chase over Christmas.
He is one of many horses to be prospering under the tutelage of trainer Venetia Williams and jockey Aidan Coleman, who are in the form of their lives.
Elsewhere, top novice hurdlers Melodic Rendezvous and Puffin Billy lock horns at Exeter tomorrow – the former’s win in Sandown’s Tolworth Hurdle was a first Grade One win for trainer Jeremy Scott and jockey Nick Scholfield.
In a supporting race, Cappa Bleu, last year’s Grand National fourth, continues his preparations for this year’s Aintree marathon.