Taranis swoops to boost Nicholls
Just as it looked like being a rough weekend for Paul Nicholls, the champion trainer found himself celebrating a big-race victory that came from a most unlikely source. Taranis, sidelined for two years by a serious leg injury, put up an astonishing performance to win the Argento Chase here and catapult himself into the Gold Cup reckoning.
Nicholls must have feared yesterday would prove frustrating, as his Pistolet Noir was beaten by a 100/1 shot in the opener and then Inchidaly Rock, his main contender in the Argento, was an early faller under Ruby Walsh.
Taranis was already travelling with evident ease but the question was whether he would have anything left for the final hill after three miles on tacky, holding ground that produced slow-motion finishes all afternoon.
Riding him for the first time, Nick Scholfield was motionless until the run-in, which suggests confidence but can sometimes betray a fear that the horse will find nothing when asked. Those clever enough to have backed Taranis down to 16/1 never had a moment's worry. The nine-year-old produced as strong a finish as he ever did before his long absence, powering six lengths clear of the favourite, Carruthers.
"I'm astounded, to be honest with you," was Nicholls' first reaction. "I never dreamt he would come back like that. Chuffed to bits. That's brightened the day up a bit. He looked, in the paddock, in absolutely top, top form and if he had that old ability, he had a chance. He'll go straight to the Gold Cup now."
Even after such a performance and with the chance that he may be better for the outing, it stretches credulity to imagine that Taranis could beat his famed stablemates, Kauto Star and Denman in March.
Nicholls praised Scholfield for "a peach of a ride" but admitted that Angela Yeoman, Taranis' owner, had hoped Walsh would ride.
"Obviously I couldn't say to Ruby, ride him, when Inchidaly Rock had run so well this year. So she was keen on Nick and I thought Nick's riding style would suit him. He's long-legged, quiet, a horseman and a good lad."
Scholfield will keep the ride in the Gold Cup, when Walsh is expected to be on Kauto Star. Riding arrangements for Denman will be left until nearer the time, while Nicholls expects What A Friend to miss the race in favour of a target at the Grand National meeting.
Tidal Bay has not been injured but his victory in the Cleeve Hurdle felt like almost as much of a comeback as the one Taranis had achieved.
The winner of the Arkle Trophy in 2008, Tidal Bay lost his way and has not won over fences since the end of that year, prompting yesterday's switch to the smaller obstacles.
Like Taranis, he coasted round this demanding circuit before going clear up the hill and, at 12/1, he now seems a live challenger to Big Buck's, another converted chaser, in the World Hurdle.
Pistolet Noir may be left in his box during the Festival, as Nicholls suggested that the horse, having his first run for the yard yesterday, was badly in need of hurdling experience.
He was eased to 25/1 from 10/1 for the Triumph Hurdle, while his stablemate Royal Charm is the same price from 12/1 for the Neptune Hurdle after finishing a tired third in his prep-run later on the card.
The winner of that race, Restless Harry, will be stepped up to three miles at the Festival in the Albert Bartlett. "You have to keep dreaming," said Robin Dickin, his trainer, who has now had a double-figure number of winners for the first time in four seasons.