Paul Nicholls has of course been one of leading lights of the UK training scene for many years now and once again, the 'Master of Ditcheat' has a strong team assembled ahead of the new National Hunt season. There have been plenty of changes down in Somerset for Nicholls over the past couple of years, which culminated in him losing his longstanding grasp on the trainers crown to Nicky Henderson last season, but he still remains one of the major players in the sport and will be out to regain the title he dominated for seven consecutive years between 2006 and 2012.
However, it is hard to see Nicholls wrestling that Championship back from Henderson this winter given the strength of the Seven Barrows yard but he has more than enough class at his disposal to feature in all of the big races this season. Ladbrokes currently make Nicholls a 7/2 chance to regain his trainers title which looks about fair given the fact that Henderson is a massive 1/5 odds-on favourite at this stage.
The meat of the new season is set to get under way over the next few weeks so we have been taking a closer look at the Paul Nicholls yard and what we can expect from them over the coming months. There are plenty of established Ditcheat stable stars to keep a close eye on with the Championship races in mind, while there are also some younger names who could be ready to come to the fore. We have picked out some of the horses who are likely to feature for the Ditcheat team this season starting some of the more well-known names in the yard.
Denman and Kauto Star may have headed into retirement over the past couple of years but there are still plenty of top NationalHunt stars down at Ditcheat. Chief among those is the great Big Buck’s who is back in training after missing the Cheltenham Festival last season through injury. The legendary horse has won the World Hurdle on no less than four occasions while he remains unbeaten over hurdles since 2008. Big Buck’s is expected to have one run in the new year before returning to the Festival with the aim of winning the Ladbrokes World Hurdle as an 11-year-old.
The Gold Cup is always an aim for Paul Nicholls and in the form of Silviniaco Conti, many believe he has a real chance of winning the race for the first time since 2009 in the 2014 race. He was travelling like a dream in the race last season before falling three out and given the fact he is still only seven with surely more improvement to come this term, he has to be one to keep an eye on in the Gold Cup Betting. Already as short as 8/1 in the ante-post market, Silviniaco Conti will enhance his claims further if he wins the Betfair Chase for the second year-in-a-row on his seasonal debut at the end of Novemeber.
It is entirely possible that Al Ferof could join Silviniaco Conti in the Gold Cup in March if the likeable grey remains fit and well through the winter. A former winner of the Supreme Novices Hurdle, Al Ferof was last seen winning the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham and is understood to be progressing well at home after picking up an injury which saw him miss the Festival last season. His career has been a stop start one to date but he remains a talented individual who could offer some each-way value in the Gold Cup market if he can prove his stamina in the meantime.
There is no doubt that Zarkandar is a class act on his day and Nicholls will be hoping that he can get the best out of the horse this season. He won the Triumph Hurdle as a juvenile and has run with credit in the Champion Hurdle on two occasions since, without ever looking like winning the race. Zarkandar won the Aintree Hurdle on his last start over 2m4f which is perhaps his best trip which does leave his potential Cheltenham race as a difficult one to predict. The World Hurdle remains a distinct possibility with that in mind and given his near misses in the Champion Hurdle he remains an interesting contender.
Tidal Bay may be 12-years-old now but he is one of the most popular horses in training. The Graham Wylie owned chaser won the Lexus in some style last Christmas and the feeling is that there is still a big race left in him to win this season. Far West was second in the Triumph Hurdle last season and could go chasing while Kauto Stone is likely to start his season off at Down Royal as Nicholls looks to get the best out of Kauto Star’s younger sibling.
Dark Horses To Follow
The success or failure of the younger horses could play a major part this season for Paul Nicholls as he looks to bridge the gap between himself and Nicky Henderson in the trainers championship. A number of new recruits have arrived in Somerset over the summer to join the inexperienced horses that could be ready for a step up in class after making their debuts last season.
One that certainly falls into that latter category is the highly exciting Just A Par who is very well thought of by the entire team at Ditcheat. Paul Nicholls is extremely bullish about the future of Just A Par who will go novice chasing this season after showing plenty of potential over hurdles. He was last seen finishing behind At Fishers Cross in the Sefton Novices Hurdle at Aintree which is rock solid form and he is expected to flourish over fences as a big chasing type. Just A Par is expected to be a strong stayer which is likely to set him on a path to the RSA Chase for which he can currently be backed at around 25/1 for in the ante-post market.
A couple of other less well known Paul Nicholls stars to keep an eye on this winter include Urubu D’Irlande and Easter Day who are both expected to feature at Cheltenham in March. Urubu D’Irlande is a novice hurdler with some potential while Easter Day was good enough to finish second in the Challow last season and is expected to embark on a chasing career.
Punters will also be well advised to follow the chances of the exciting Unioniste this season. The John Hales owned horse was the first four-year-old to win the December Gold Cup last year before finishing a respectable fourth place in the RSA Chase. Those performances perhaps take him out of the 'dark horses' category but given his age, Unioniste is only likely to improve this winter. A second season chaser who could start off in the Charlie Hall Chase and could still be anything.
Those are just some of the names we have picked out to watch this season and it will be fascinating to follow their progress. It is fair to say that Nicholls may lack the strength and depth of a couple of years ago but as we have highlighted, he has more than enough artillery at his disposal to have another cracking winter.