Al Ferof leads Nicholls' bid to bag elusive Gold
THERE aren't too many big races left that Paul Nicholls has yet to win, but the Paddy Power Gold Cup (2.35 Cheltenham) is one that has somehow eluded the master of Ditcheat hitherto.
Having trained the runner-up on three occasions, he knows what it's like to play the bridesmaid and this year he'll have three runners to try and get the monkey off his back – namely Poquelin, Al Ferof and Aerial.
If the betting market has it right, there's a 7/2 chance of any one of the Nicholls horses winning today, with Al Ferof the most likely to perform best out of the trio at 7/1.
The 2011 Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner has only five chases under the belt but he's amassed some decent prize money during that period, including a Grade One win at Sandown.
He was a little unlucky in the Arkle when he made a blunder at the 10th, and he looked a quite weary last time out in a novice chase at Aintree in March.
While those two races are a cause for concern, it's worth remembering that Al Ferof always goes best when fresh so we can expect to see a rejuvenated animal this afternoon.
Nicholls brought him for a racecourse gallop at Wincanton on Sunday to loosen him up a bit and reports from the yard say the gelding is in fine fettle and rearing to go. He does have to give weight to almost all of the field, but if he's back in form, as expected, the extra lead will not be a problem.
That said, it would be foolish to underestimate the claims of the favourite Grands Crus, trained by David Pipe. If anyone knows how to prepare a horse for the Paddy Power Gold Cup, it's the Pipe yard.
Great Endeavour won last year for David, while his father, Martin, holds the record as the most successful trainer of all time in the race (eight wins). Grands Crus was disappointing in the RSA Chase last time out but he scoped badly afterwards and can be given the benefit of the doubt.
At these weights, you'd suspect he has more to come but his price is simply too short at 9/4 in a race where a strong case could also be made for Hunt Ball, Walkon, Micheal Flips and one or two others.
In the opening Juvenile Hurdle (12.45), Far West is the one to beat at 2/1, receiving 4lbs from the Alan King-trained Mcvicar. The selection is another one of Paul Nicholls' French recruits and was a real eye-catcher when winning his debut British race at Chepstow last month.
His jumping was fluent, he travelled well throughout and for a three-year-old, he appeared very calm and in control. The horse he beat handily at Chepstow – Handazan – has since gone on to win at Aintree and I'm certain we'll be hearing a lot more about Far West as the season progresses. Definitely one to stick in the notebook.
At Lingfield, Bint Alzain (7/2) should take all the beating in the Get Straight To The Bet At bluesq.com Claiming Stakes (1.05). She's been running to form in some all-weather handicaps of late but should be seen to better effect now that she's been significantly dropped in class today.
At 33/1, the market gives Cross Kennon very little hope in the Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham (3.05), but he won this race a couple of years ago and was fourth in the World Hurdle in 2011.
Some lacklustre performances since have seen him slip below the radar and while it's fair to say that the eight-year-old has seen better days, he's not without a place chance in what looks to be a wide-open contest this afternoon.
12.45 Cheltenham: Far West
1.0 Punchestown: Money Spider
1.05 Lingfield: Bint Alzain
2.35 Cheltenham: Al Ferof
3.05 Cheltenham: Cross Kennon (e/w)