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Paul Nicholls

Paul Nicholls: trains Imperial Cup favourite Mr Mole for JP McManus

  PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (  

Champions combine with Imperial ambitions

JUMPING'S three champions combine with what countless punters will hope is an unstoppable force at Sandown on Saturday as Mr Mole seeks to boost Cheltenham betting coffers by landing the traditional eve of festival feature that is the Paddy Power Imperial Cup.

When the racing world's eyes switch to the foot of Cleeve Hill on Tuesday, Paul Nicholls will be on one side of the fence with Tony McCoy and JP McManus on the other, but on Saturday they are as one as unexposed novice Mr Mole – the first horse the champion owner has sent to the champion trainer – attempts to maintain the excellent record of favourites in the £70,000 Sandown showpiece.

Five of the last ten Imperial Cup winners have headed the market and Mr Mole does so despite having raced just three times over hurdles, most recently when a Taunton handicap was won by a two-and-three-quarter-length margin.

Nicholls will head to Cheltenham with a clear title lead over Nicky Henderson but with the latter boasting an exceptional festival squad – including the opening day's first two favourites – the master of Ditcheat will be keen to stretch his advantage at Sandown, where ground described as soft, heavy in places has boosted his confidence.

"We didn't want it too quick so I'm delighted the rain has come,” said Nicholls. “He won nicely at Taunton and the form has worked out. It's a big step up in class and his lack of experience could be a factor, but a strongly-run race will suit him."

It was not only Surrey that was soggy on Friday with Cheltenham subject to 7mm of rain that turned all courses soft.

Nigel Twiston-Davies, who trains close to the track in Naunton, said: "We've had persistent, gentle rain here since last night, but it hasn't been huge amounts. I'm expecting the ground on Tuesday to be soft."

While Cheltenham seems likely to offer testing ground on Tuesday, it is certain to offer cold conditions, so much so that frost covers will be deployed across the two main tracks and parts of the cross-country course from Saturday.

Clerk of the course Simon Claisse, who is prepared for temperatures to plunge to as low as -6C on Monday night, said: "We're going to cover the Old course [used for racing on Tuesday and Wednesday] on Saturday as well as vulnerable parts of the Cross Country. Then on Sunday we will cover the New course [used for racing on Thursday and Friday].

“Our forecast suggests it could be borderline in terms of being raceable without using covers."

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