Nicholls holding aces as Gold rush kicks off
Kauto Star and Denman are primed for a third Gold Cup showdown at Cheltenham on Friday, March 19, in the Tote-sponsored Festival showpiece which their trainer Paul Nicholls has dominated since 2007.
Indeed the champion handler in Britain, who is responsible for no less than six of the 27 entries revealed yesterday, is as short as 4/7 with Paddy Power to saddle the first two finishers for a third year on the trot.
Furthermore it's 9/1 with the leading Irish firm if you fancy he will make it a rare 1-2-3 in the Blue Riband with recent Lexus Chase victor What A Friend included along with last March's fifth My Will plus previous Festival scorers Taranis (2007 Ryanair Chase) and Tricky Trickster (2009 National Hunt Chase).
Clearly the combined opposition, including eight Irish-based nominees, with the smallest number of entrants of recent times, have a mountain to climb if they are to prevent the Ditcheat trainer extending his stranglehold.
One trainer keen to take on the big two is Mark Bradstock whose Carruthers is among the outsiders.
"There are obviously Kauto Star and Denman, who are both fairly exceptional but, below that, it would be nice to think that we would be in with a shout of making the frame," said Bradstock.
"I was over the moon with his run at Newbury because it cemented what he did in his novice season. The time was quicker than the Long Walk Hurdle on the same card so, while they didn't appear to be going very fast, they must have been going a fair lick.
"We could go for the AON Chase at Newbury, where he would have to take on Denman, so the alternative could be the Letheby & Christopher Chase at Cheltenham on Festival Trials Day (January 30)."
The sponsors quote the imperious Kauto Star at 5/4 to repeat last season's win over Irish-bred Denman (15/8) and then you can have 16/1 about joint third favourites Imperial Commander and Cooldine for Willie Mullins.
The latter pair triumphed in the Ryanair Chase and RSA Chase respectively in the Cotswolds last March when Kauto Star became the first horse to regain the Gold Cup mantle.
Boasting four 'King George' successes on the bounce at Kempton and three Betfair Chases around Haydock, Ruby Walsh's partner would stand alongside Golden Miller, Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate as triple winners should they lead the field home once more.
Twice a Hennessy Gold Cup hero at Newbury, Denman, which won on his sole point-to-point outing in his native Cork before joining Nicholls, defeated his stablemate by seven lengths in the 2008 renewal.
Considering the strength in depth of the Nicholls team, the connections of Joncol understandably decided there was little to be gained by pitching their rising star into the fray.
Paul Nolan's imposing charge, which could go for the shorter Ryanair Chase instead, will primarily be aiming to get back on the winning trail in next month's Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown.
There was no entry either for this country's 2006 winner War Of Attrition which has the John Smith's Grand National firmly on his agenda, leaving Cooldine to spearhead our squad.
Cooldine's injury-prone stable companion Glencove Marina is available at 33/1 along with Jim Dreaper's Notre Pere while it's 66/1 for the Dessie Hughes trio of Schindlers Hunt, In Compliance and Rare Bob.
Hughes, meanwhile, has indicated that one of his Aintree Grand National hopes, Black Apalachi, is on course to make his seasonal debut over hurdles at Leopardstown on January 24 after his scheduled reappearance was lost to the adverse conditions.
"He's very well and I'm very happy with him and the plan is to run him in the Pertemps Qualifier at Leopardstown and then he'll go on to Fairyhouse for the Bobbyjo Chase (February 20)," said the Kildare trainer.
Black Apalachi, a seven-time winner, won the Bobbyjo Chase last year by a runaway 17-lengths from Snowy Morning before unseating Denis O'Regan at Aintree in the Grand National.
The partnership came to grief on the final circuit at Becher's Brook when still travelling nicely at the head of affairs and the Grand National again looks the target.
Totesport Gold Cup, sponsors bet: 5/4 Kauto Star, 15/8 Denman, 16/1 Cooldine, Imperial Commander, 20/1 What A Friend, 33/1 Carruthers, Glencove Marina, Madison Du Berlais, Money Trix, Notre Pere, 40/1 bar.