Mon Parrain spearheads assault on Cheltenham
Cheltenham -- which is to be one of the stop-off points for the Olympic torch next May -- is hoping there will be plenty to light up the course this weekend.
The track record of winners at Prestbury Park in November is always good when it comes to identifying the main protagonists for the showpiece Festival four months down the road.
In the past 10 years, more than 30 horses which scored at this weekend's fixture went on to win or make the podium the following March. Most notable among them has been Imperial Commander, which took the Ryanair Chase four months after winning the Paddy Power Gold Cup and progressed to a Gold Cup victory the following year.
And of course Long Run, only third in the two-and-a-half-miler last year, has since taken both the King George VI Chase and the Gold Cup.
The Paddy Power Gold Cup is one of the few trophies not in Paul Nicholls' cabinet and, for him, it is surely a contest tinged not only with frustration but also of sadness.
His four runners-up include Poliantas, which collapsed and died after crossing the line, while Granit Jack broke his heart four years ago when, looking all over the winner, he fell at the second last and died.
In Saturday's edition he fields the strong favourite Mon Parrain -- for whom hopes this term are much higher than a Grade Three handicap -- with Poquelin, runner-up two years ago, as wingman at the top of the handicap.
Ex-French Mon Parrain was last seen in action in April when second at Aintree after winning easily on his British debut, and in public last week, when he joined Kauto Star and Big Buck's for some away-day exercise at Exeter.
"He benefited enormously from that day out," reported Nicholls. "I'd been struggling to get him as fit as I would have liked at home. I rate him highly but he may have to have improved to win off his current mark.
"He won so well when he was thrown in at the weights at Sandown and then he did run well at Aintree (second in the Topham Chase), although he has gone up a few pounds for getting beat. It's going to be a hard race to win, but he doesn't know he's favourite."
All the leading fancies were among the 32 five-day acceptors, including the Philip Hobbs-trained Wishful Thinking, Ferdy Murphy's Divers, David Pipe's Great Endeavour, David Bridgwater's The Giant Bolster and Nicky Richards' Noble Alan.
Nigel Twiston-Davies, who has won the race twice in the last three years with Imperial Commander (2008) and Little Josh (2010), is double-handed with Swincombe Rock and Billie Magern.
There are four Irish possibles in Paul Nolan's Noble Prince, Henry de Bromhead's Loosen My Load, Tom Taaffe's Finger Onthe Pulse and Eoin Griffin's Norther Bay. Nolan, however, has warned punters Noble Prince, an easy winner at Naas on his reappearance, is not yet a definite runner.
The County Wexford handler said: "We have left him in the Paddy Power Gold Cup and a decision on whether he runs will be made later in the week. We wanted to have the chance to make that decision so I decided to confirm him.
"I'm very pleased with him and the horse seems to be in very good shape."
Meanwhile, Malcolm Jefferson is praying for decent conditions to persuade him to run Cape Tribulation.
"We would love to run Cape Tribulation but he would need proper good jumping ground to take his chance," said the North Yorkshire trainer.
"He is a good horse and he has run well on good ground, but they always seem to be going a stride too quick for him on a faster surface.
"He is at the right end of the handicap and looks tremendous at the moment but we are just hoping that the ground comes right for him."
Evan Williams fears Buck Mulligan might not make the cut as the maximum field allowed is 20 and his horse needs several above him in the handicap to come out.
Buck Mulligan had been on the go throughout the summer and was second to Billie Magern on this course last month.
"If he did get in the race on Saturday with a feather-weight in the handicap, he'd definitely run," said the Welsh-based trainer. (© Independent News Service)