Ghizao soars into Arkle reckoning for Nicholls
TO a man like Paul Nicholls, precedent is always approached as a crossroads.
It can point out some familiar highway; or suggest some faint path, seldom taken, to uncharted horizons. The latter beckons the champion trainer today when he calls Kauto Star owner Clive Smith to plot a pioneering route to a fifth King George VI Chase. But it was the former that brought him here yesterday, to win the race sponsored by Independent Newspapers for a remarkable seventh time.
Nicholls has become so accustomed to the demands of the Independent Novices' Chase that he broke with habit to have a bet on Ghizao, the outsider of five runners.
On the face of it, Ghizao had his work cut out to reverse form with Kilmurry, which beat him readily last month. But Nicholls was sure he would make radical improvement for that run, his first since a wind operation during the summer, and that conviction had been fortified by a "brilliant" piece of work with Master Minded.
Sure enough, Ghizao was always full of gusto throughout, jumping very accurately, and the effort of trying to match strides with him from three out eventually saw Henry de Bromhead's Loosen My Load collared for second by Captain Chris.
Ghizao, which was 10 lengths clear at the line, is sure to be a formidable candidate for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Precedent, in this instance, could only encourage anyone tempted by his 12/1 ante-post price. Several stars in the making have announced themselves in this race, not least Best Mate, and Nicholls himself has tended to target it with one of his best novices.
"The Arkle will be the plan," he confirmed. "I could not believe the price he was, and had a nice bet at 8/1. He needed the run last time and improved enormously for it."
Nicholls' next task was to saddle last year's winner, Tataniano, for his return in the two-mile chase. Tataniano had duly gone on to prove one of the best of last season's novices at two miles, and Nicholls professed himself satisfied after he faded into third behind Gauvain and, runner-up for the seventh time running, Forpadydeplasterer, beaten four and six lengths. "The ground was probably a bit soft for him," Nicholls said.
The winner -- always travelling well on his first start in 576 days -- became the latest to amplify the gifts of Nick Williams. Previously with Charlie Mann, Gauvain had been treated for tendon problems during his absence, and now looks a live contender for the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
"I'm as shocked as everyone else," Williams said. "We were just hoping for a sign that he was on the way back. It's his first season out of novice company, and a horse like that can always improve a bit."
As for Forpadydeplasterer, Tom Cooper suspects better ground and a longer trip might end his run of near misses and will now train him for the King George. His rivals there will include Long Run, despite defeat behind Little Josh on Saturday, while Nigel Twiston-Davies' Imperial Commander will return at Haydock on Saturday.
Team Twiston-Davies were the toast of Cheltenham after Little Josh seized the moment in Saturday's Power Gold Cup. Ridden by the trainer's 18-year-old son, Sam, the gelding eclipsed a host of big names, including the much-vaunted Long Run, by making all of the running in the prestigious handicap.
Little Josh winged around the home bend and his stride only began to shorten after the last fence. But as much as Michael Hourigan's runner-up Dancing Tornado scented blood, passing Long Run on the charge to the line, he was separated from the winner by two and three-quarter lengths.
Meanwhile, the big question is whether Kauto Star will be kept fresh for his date with destiny, or risk a ground-breaking handicap appearance in the Hennessy Gold Cup on Saturday week.
While Solwhit was proving himself alive and well over at Punchestown, there was fresh Champion Hurdle blood here when Menorah managed to give 27lbs to Bothy in the Greatwood Hurdle. Trainer Philip Hobbs acknowledged a rock-solid comeback by the Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner. "He's only five so hopefully there's improvement to come. He needs a strong pace, which is why we came here, and I certainly hope he can become a Champion Hurdle horse."
Hobbs hopes that Menorah will measure up to Rooster Booster and Detroit City, which broke into the elite in this same race in 2002 and 2006.
It can only help his cause for the Cheltenham Festival that he is so clearly at home over this course, and the same is true of Ghizao, which had won the bumper on this card last year. No less striking this time was Rock On Ruby -- again trained by Nicholls and partnered by Noel Fehily, who has ridden seven winners for the champion trainer in six days.
On the jockey injury front, Christian Williams faces a lengthy spell on the sidelines after breaking both his arms at Cheltenham on Saturday due to his tumble from Beshabar in the novices' chase. (© Independent News Service)