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Nicholls hopes Master stroke can stem rise of Henderson

Paul Nicholls, who has swept all before him for the past five seasons, is in the unusual situation of playing the role of King Canute, with the rising water represented by his rival Nicky Henderson.

Since the turn of the year, Nicholls has sent out seven winners at a strike rate of a miserable, by his standards, 14pc. Henderson -- greatly helped also by the form of stable jockey Barry Geraghty -- is on a surge of 26, at 42pc. Five-times winner Nicholls is still odds-on for the trainers' championship, but eased to 1/5 from double that, with Henderson's chances halved to 3/1.

The title is decided by prize-money, with Nicholls still £250,000 ahead. That is small enough beer, though, with more than £5m to be played for at the Cheltenham Festival in March and the tide definitely flowing Henderson's way. But this afternoon, Ascot may provide Nicholls with a break.

The day's main attraction, the Victor Chandler Chase, is worth nearly £60,000 to the winner, but over the monetary value there may be a psychological advantage to be gained. A week ago, Nicholls' pride and joy Kauto Star was humbled by the season's rising chasing star, Long Run, from Henderson's yard. Today it is up to Master Minded -- in the same Clive Smith strip as Kauto Star -- to repel allcomers, including two of Long Run's stablemates.

Nicholls will be under greater pressure, for Master Minded will start a short-priced favourite to complete his task. He has six Grade One victories under his considerable girth already, including two Queen Mother Champion Chases and the 2009 edition of today's race. At his best, he has been one of the most brilliant two-mile chasers ever.

Ruby Walsh, his sidelined regular rider, maintains the gelding's technique over a fence is the best of any horse he has ridden. Tony McCoy, who won the Tingle Creek Chase on him more than two years ago, is in the saddle again. Petit Robin, the Henderson first string, is perceived as the horse most likely to trouble him today, but he has not done so on the three occasions they have met in the past, most recently when eight lengths adrift at Cheltenham in December. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent