Nicholls wowed by Minded mastery
Master Minded returns to defend his Seasons Holidays Queen Mother Champion Chase crown at Cheltenham tomorrow, with Paul Nicholls believing his two-mile specialist is back to his imperious best.
Although winner of the race 12 months ago, the seven-year-old failed to show the same artistic flair of 2008 when he had freewheeled home by 19 lengths.
Nicholls admits Master Minded was beset by problems last spring and reports him to be thriving after a fractured rib was diagnosed following his defeat at Cheltenham in November, a win in the Game Spirit at Newbury in February having done much to quash rumours of his demise.
The champion trainer said: "He is very, very well and did a brilliant piece of work with Kauto Star last weekend.
"I think he is back to where he was when he won the race two years ago.
"He had loads of problems last spring and just wasn't the same horse.
"We found he had the rib problem after running at Cheltenham in November and we didn't ride him out for six weeks.
"He started back in work on January 6 and there wasn't a lot of time to get him ready for Newbury, but he had to run to see where he was.
"He went on to win there, despite demolishing the final fence, and I couldn't be more happy with him.
"He has improved enormously since then, I think he is back to his best and if he runs to his best form then he should win."
Master Minded's owner Clive Smith is delighted the horse is back to his sparkling form of 2008.
"Ruby (Walsh) really had to work on him last year. Then at Punchestown he went off in front like he normally does but, with half a mile to go, they were on his tail again," he said.
"Paul said he had a lot a lot of difficulty with him in the spring of last year. He said he was difficult and I never got to the bottom of what he really meant.
"But now we have got him right again I think he's back to where he was two years ago."
Smith revealed he was not too despondent when Master Minded was beaten on his seasonal reappearance.
"I think you have got to take it as it comes," he remarked.
"I didn't think for one minute he had gone off the boil, I thought he would still be all right."
Smith felt there was plenty of tension in the stable before the Game Spirit, however.
"I don't know, I only get the vibes, but I just felt Paul was very tense about it," the owner admitted.
"I can tell when he's got a lot on his mind and I thought he didn't want to talk too much about anything.
"I thought the vibes weren't quite as good and I certainly had no interest in having any bets or anything.
"It was a nice surprise it went so well and now we know it went so well we think he's right back to his best.
"I want him to win, for the horse really.
"It's all good fun for me - I'm enjoying every minute of it - but it's just desserts for the horse to win it three times, he's a super horse."
Master Minded is odds-on across the board to make it a hat-trick of wins in the Champion Chase.
He faces eight rivals, including last year's Arkle respective first and second, Forpadydeplasterer and Kalahari King, as well as Big Zeb, who pushed him to a head at Punchestown.
Well Chief was runner-up to Master Minded last year and was also second behind Moscow Flyer in 2005.
Plagued by injury for a lot of his career, he did defeat an under-par Master Minded at Cheltenham in November, but has since been beaten in three subsequent starts.
"It's a small field and there's lots of prize-money on offer," said trainer David Pipe.
"He loves it round Cheltenham and he will prefer it there to the last few racecourses he's been to.
"He's not getting any younger, he's not as good as he was but he's still a good horse.
"His price probably reflects his chance. He's a big price, but the ground won't worry him."
Mahogany Blaze split Well Chief and Master Minded in November and was second to the latter at Newbury last month.
"Obviously he's got it all to do, but he could run into a place," his trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies said.
Kalahari King was only beaten a short head by Forpadydeplasterer in last year's Arkle and made a successful reappearance when defying top weight in a handicap chase at Doncaster last month.
His trainer Ferdy Murphy is pleased the ground at Cheltenham has dried out.
"He's in great order and we're looking forward to it," said the West Witton handler.
"The weather has been good to us. I'm delighted with the ground so it's fingers crossed.
"The ground at Doncaster was probably a bit too soft for him so we were well pleased with that performance.
"It's nice to have a horse as good as him to run in it, that's what it's all about."