Nicholls dominates Cheltenham market
The formidable Paul Nicholls-Ruby Walsh team have two more Cheltenham ante-post favourites, as well as Kauto Star in the Gold Cup, following yesterday's publication of entries for the Champion Chase and the Ryanair Chase.
Their opponents will hardly be encouraged by the strong hand which Britain's champion trainer has in each of these Grade One features, for which title holder Master Minded and course specialist Poquelin head the betting lists.
Currently recovering from rib injuries, Master Minded is no better than 6/4 with Paddy Power to follow only Badsworth Boy (1983-'85) into the festival record books as a triple scorer in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Stable companion Twist Magic, which defeated prime Irish hopes Forpadydeplasterer (second) and Big Zeb (fourth) in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown last month, is currently on the 8/1 mark with them.
Already successful four times in the two-mile championship, Nicholls is responsible for a quintet among the 24 horses revealed yesterday with seven possible starters based here and a single German challenger, Fiepes Shuffle.
Cork trainer John Murphy's veteran Newmill, which sprang a 16/1 surprise in 2006, was the most recent Irish victor in this specialist contest in which Big Zeb was a casualty four out last year when seemingly going well.
Big Zeb is scheduled to have his Cheltenham prep race in the Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown on January 31 but Forpadydeplasterer may not be ready in time for that event due to insufficient work.
Tralee trainer Tom Cooper's string has been held up by the bad weather this month so last March's Irish Independent Arkle Trophy hero is more likely to wait for next month's Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park.
While Cooper has entered his stable star in both the Champion Chase and the two-miles-five-furlongs Ryanair Chase, he still favours the former race and is hoping for "some good ground at Cheltenham".
Two other previous winners of the Irish Independent promotion figuring prominently among the Champion Chase entries are last year's runner-up Well Chief (2004) and Voy Por Ustedes (2006), which beat all except Imperial Commander when hot favourite for the Ryanair Chase 12 months ago.
The latter is most likely to have another crack at the longer event this time and Imperial Commander has the Gold Cup, rather than defending the Ryanair Chase prize, as his primary target at the upcoming festival.
The Nicholls-trained Poquelin is the general 4/1 Ryanair market leader to follow up last month's Boylesports Gold Cup triumph over the course and distance, with the Queen's Barbers Shop next best at 11/2 with Powers.
Edward O'Grady's Tranquil Sea, too good for Poquelin in the Paddy Power Gold Cup over the same route in November, is third favourite at 6/1 while it's 8/1 about Joncol.