Champion trainer Paul Nicholls enjoyed a successful Cheltenham Festival, saddling three winners on a memorable Wednesday afternoon at Prestbury Park that included a first victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase since the heady days of Master Minded in 2009.
Nicholls’ once dominant yard at Ditcheat perhaps lacks the sheer strength and depth of the ‘golden era’ of Kauto Star, Big Buck’s and Denman but there is nonetheless plenty to be positive about for the trainer ahead of the remaining big spring jumps meetings.
With the Aintree Festival now looming large on the horizon, Nicholls is hopeful of seeing the colours of his only Grand National winner Neptune Collonges carried to victory once more when Unioniste lines up in the most famous steeplechase of them all.
Grand National statisticians will point to the need for a horse to have won a chase over three miles or more prior to going to Aintree and that is something Unioniste has in his locker this season.
He scored in decisive fashion at Sandown in January in the 32Red Casino Handicap Chase, while he has two wins from three starts over fences at Aintree.
While he still has six entries remaining in the big race on Saturday 11th April, Nicholls is adamant that Unioniste and Rocky Creek lead the way and represent his best chances of adding to the 2012 victory of Neptune Collonges.
Rocky Creek advertised his credentials for the Grand National with victory in a three-mile handicap chase at Kempton in February.
That was certainly an impressive display but Unioniste’s form received an outstanding boost when Coneygree won the Gold Cup at Cheltenham.
In highlighting this duo as his main contenders, Nicholls gave a real nod to the form of Unioniste – who is owned by the same connections as Nicholls’ sole Grand National winner, Neptune Collonges.
Unioniste’s third place finish behind subsequent Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Coneygree when they clashed at Newbury in February now reads particularly well, a fact Nicholls was keen to stress when making a case for his Grand National chances.
For Nicholls, the one drawback was that the ease with which Unioniste scored at Sandown on 32Red day in January resulted in some extra weight on his back for the Grand National.
The handicapper elected to give him an additional 10lbs to carry for that victory but his trainer still believes there is improvement to come from the gelding.
The additional weight will certainly ensure that Unioniste must turn in arguably a career-best performance if he is to prevail at Aintree but it has always been evident Nicholls holds the son of Dom Alco in high regard since he arrived in England from the yard of Guillaume Macaire in the autumn of 2012.
It is certainly worth paying attention to the Ditcheat handler’s musings on his Grand National hopefuls ahead of the big race.
Nicholls is renowned in racing circles for his honest and often revealing appraisals of his horses and so it proved once more in the run-up to the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
At Cheltenham, Dodging Bullets proved his trainer’s assertion that he was the best two-mile chaser around when he deservedly took victory in the Queen Mother for Sam Twiston-Davies.
Nicholls was quick to suggest in the run up to the contest that his Tingle Creek and Clarence House Chase winner deserved to be favourite for the race and he was proved to be utterly correct come post time as Dodging Bullets showed his class.
It was the centrepiece in a spectacular second day of the festival for Nicholls, sandwiched nicely between the victories of Ditcheat debutant Aux Ptits Soins in the Coral Cup and Qualando –who led home a one-two for Nicholls in the Fred Winter.
The World Hurdle has been a tremendous source of success for Nicholls via the four-time winner Big Buck’s and with both Saphir Du Rheu – in the famous colours of Andy Stewart’s Big Buck’s – and Zarkandar in the race, more glory beckoned.
Trainer Warren Greatrex had not read the script and Cole Harden produced a bold front running display to win the race, with Saphir Du Rheu and Zarkandar coming home second and third respectively.
The latter looked a particularly unfortunate loser having travelled with genuine promise only for a bad mistake at the second last hurdle that robbed Noel Fehily’s mount of any chance of grabbing the win.
Compensation could await Zarkandar when the focus switches to Aintree in April.
Nicholls has targeted the Liverpool Hurdle with his staying hurdles duo and it will take a supreme effort from Cole Harden should he re-oppose and once more get the better of Zarkandar at a meeting where he has previously won over 2m4f in the Aintree Hurdle – lowering the colours of The New One amongst others.
It will be a crack team at Aintree for Nicholls, with Silviniaco Conti also likely to appear after his failure to justify favouritism in the Cheltenham Gold Cup alongside Unioniste and Rocky Creek in the National itself.
His Ditcheat string showed their well-being when it mattered most at Cheltenham and it is reasonable to expect that Nicholls will be in the winner’s enclosure again at Aintree during the Grand National meeting.