Winner of the Champion Jumps Trainer award for the past seven seasons and crowned top trainer six of the last 13 Cheltenham Festivals, there is no doubting that Paul Nicholls is one of the best around when it comes to training superstars of the National Hunt. It is therefore surprising to learn that Nicholls can be backed at odds as big as 10/1 (with Betfred and William Hill) to train the most winners at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival.
The news that stable star, Big Buck's, misses his chance to win a fifth World Hurdle due to injury was a massive blow for the 50 year old but he still heads to Prestbury Park armed with a number of runners who boast great chances of winning.
Big Buck's was the only Nicholls runner at this year's Festival who was a clear ante post favourite but there's still plenty of Ditcheat inmates at the top of the markets for many of the 27 races.
Zarkandar and Silviniaco Conti represent the best chance of championship glory for Nicholls in the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup respectively, both of which are vying for second favouritism currently. Winner of the Triumph Hurdle two years ago, Zarkandar could only manage fifth in last season's Champion Hurdle behind stablemate, Rock on Ruby, but in three runs this season, the six year old has looked a much stronger and improved horse winning all three starts. Hurricane Fly looks the one to beat in the first of the Festival's four feature races but as the Willie Mullins showed last year, he is far from a certainty and at 9/2, Zarkandar won't be short of supporters as Nicholls looks to win the race for a second year running.
Silviniaco Conti is a best price 5/1 to win the Gold Cup, which would hand Paul Nicholls his fifth victory in the race and after winning his last four starts over fences by a cumulative winning distance of over 33 lengths, it's hard to pick holes in his form. The seven year old may not have the Cheltenham form that the market leaders, Bobs Worth and Sir Des Champs, have in the book but wins in the Grade One Betfair Chase and Denman Chase puts Silviniaco Conti in with a great shout of Gold Cup glory and he could very well be ready to step in to the hooves of the now retired two times winner of the race, Kauto Star.
In the opening race of the 2013 Cheltenham Festival, Paul Nicholls will be hoping to get off to the best possible start courtesy of Dodging Bullets in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. The five year old has had respectable novice hurdle campaign this season, winning twice at Cheltenham before finishing third in the Grade One Christmas Hurdle at Kempton in December. At 8/1, My Tent Or Yours, Jezki and Un Atout are all favoured in the market but support has seen that price contract from 14/1 a month ago and Dodging Bullets certainly looks capable of making his presence felt.
Another young hurdler from Ditcheat is Far West, who is the current second favourite to win the Triumph Hurdle having won all four starts on British soil since arriving at Nicholls' Somerset yard from France in October. Two of those wins came over the same course and distance as the Triumph Hurdle with a combined winning distance of 26 lengths! As such, Far West looks a real contender to hand Nicholls his third win in this race in six years.
Another French Import of Nicholls' is Wonderful Charm who is the favourite to win the Coral Cup on Wednesday after just one start for his new trainer, a six length win in a novice hurdle at Chepstow in October. The two mile five furlong event will be the five year old's handicap debut and could prove to be thrown in at the weights off an official rating of 149 with more improvement sure to come.
Saphir Du Rheu, Unionste and Ulck Du Lin are also imports from across the Channel and merit respect in the races for which they are entered. Saphir Du Rheu can be backed at 8/1 to win the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle, Ulck Du Lin is a 9/1 chance for the final race of the meeting, the Grand Annual, while Unioniste is 7/1 to win the RSA Chase having won three of his four starts this season, including an impressive 11 length victory at Cheltenham in December.
Another Nicholls runner to be aware of is Sam Winner, who is the 5/1 market leader to win the Pertemps Final on day three. Two of this year old's three career wins came at Cheltenham when a promising novice hurdler and after finishing fourth in the 2011 Triumph Hurdle, he was sent chasing, which failed to produce a win. He was given a prep race in a "bumper for jumpers" event at Kempton in January and for a horse that had Grade One potential just two years ago, is an intriguing entry stepped up to three miles in handicap company.
Judging on his performance 12 months ago, Nicky Henderson certainly sets a high standard when it comes to training winners at Cheltenham and looks the one to beat again this year but it would be foolish to write off Paul Nicholl's chances of further adding to his 32 winners at the Festival and winning the trainers title for a seventh time!