Fred Winter hope Dreamcatching leads champion's assault on handicaps
Paul Nicholls has captured five handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival over the last two years and thinks Dreamcatching and Romain De Senam could be the ones to do the job for him this season.
With a lack of Grade 1 performers in the yard, the champion trainer has become a master at targeting the Cheltenham handicaps and believes he has a decent chance of landing the Fred Winter for the third year in a row with Dreamcatching.
It is several years since Nicholls could show off the likes of Denman, Kauto Star and Big Buck’s at his yard but clever placing means the last time he drew a blank at the festival was 2002.
Nicholls, whose Cheltenham team of “around 18 to 20” will be his smallest for several years, said on Tuesday: “When you had Kauto Star and Denman winning, no-one cared about the rest. You can’t invent Grade 1 horses but I’ve got lots going with good chances and it’s about running them in the right races. We did well last year and won three handicaps, and hopefully we can do well again.
“Dreamcatching won’t be far away in the Fred Winter. He bolted in at Wincanton on Saturday and has a mark of 131. It’s a race we’ve done really well in, with the first and second the last two years. Qualando, who won it in 2015, was off 131, and Diego Du Charmil won it last year off 133. So he’s around about the right mark.
“He won a bumper in France and we fancied him at Kempton over Christmas when he ran very free. But now he looks really progressive.”
Romain De Senam was runner-up in last year’s Fred Winter and goes for the novice handicap chase on the opening day. Nicholls said: “He won’t be far away either. He will be very competitive and has a nice handicap mark.”
Nicholls' shortest-priced hope is Politologue in the JLT Novices’ Chase and the champion trainer said: “He’s one of our leading chances. He’s really progressive and has won three from four over fences. His rating of 152 is a very good mark for a novice over fences.”
Betfair Hurdle runner-up Movewiththetimes has a slew of entries but could end up in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices'. Nicholls said: “He’ll be suited by a fast pace and I think he’ll run a very tidy race.”
Nicholls has won the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup four times but outsider Saphir Du Rheu will be his sole runner this year. Nicholls has strongly fancied the Colin Tizzard-trained Native River since his Welsh Grand National win.
He said: “I had £50 on him after the Welsh National. He’s like Denman in that he’s tough, jumps, gallops and stays. He put them to the sword in the Welsh National and after that race I thought he would win.”
Zarkandar, a winner at Haydock on Saturday, heads for the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle but the trainer will not be represented in the Stan James Champion Hurdle, which he thinks will be won by Yanworth – with Barry Geraghty on board.
Nicholls, who is long odds-on for the trainers’ title and does not think Cheltenham will be decisive, said: “I will probably have a few less runners than normal. There’s no point running them for the sake of it. There are lots of good races at Aintree and after.
“Anything on top of one winner at the festival is a bonus. If you have one winner you’re lucky, then you build on that. Without the Grade 1 winners there’s not a lot of pressure in a lot of ways. But you still want to be training winners.”