Old Guard and San Benedeto give Nicholls strong hand in Listed hurdle
At the start of the week Paul Nicholls had no intention of running either San Benedeto or Old Guard in Kempton's Matchbook VIP Hurdle (4.20) and yet the pair are the highest-rated runners in the race and either of them could very well win.
He explained: "This race was reoffered when only five were entered, and that's when I put them in. The conditions suit them, and I could see they weren't particularly highly-rated horses in there, but one's a prep race and one's an afterthought.
"When an opportunity comes up like this you have to kick on and try."
Aintree Grade 1 novice chase winner San Benedeto was Nicholls' biggest money earner of the 2016-17 season when winning six of his 12 races, and he is going to be targeted at some of the better chases, but he was a useful enough hurdler too, and if the improvement he has shown in chases translates back to hurdles he will have an excellent chance.
Old Guard does not seem quite the force he was when winning Cheltenham's Grade 2 International Hurdle two seasons ago, but this Listed contest, won three times in a row by The New One, is arguably on the decline and represents a realistic opportunity.
Nicholls said: "San Benedeto is a 150-rated hurdler who doesn't have a penalty, and he needed a run for the Haldon Gold Cup, so this looked ideal. He's in good shape to run well, but this is a prep run.
"Old Guard is rated 149 and ran very well off topweight in the handicap hurdle at Chepstow last weekend. He doesn't have a penalty either, and the conditions suit him really well, but this is an afterthought."
He said: "Optimus Prime was a good second in the Swinton. He's got some numbers to find with Paul's runners but he's got recent, decent form. It's going to be a tight race.
"In reality Miss Spent will be the outsider of the lot, and that's probably where she'll finish. She's just there in the hope of nicking third and some black type if something happens to the others."
Grown up Agenda bidding to go one better
New Agenda was a 28-1 chance when second to Black Corton in last year's Better Odds With Matchbook Novices' Hurdle (3.15), but he has grown up and improved since then and will not be that sort of price again.
It looks a better race, and trainer Paul Webber is not saying that he will win, but there are plenty of positives and the trainer gives him "a good shout" in a race in which big guns Paul Nicholls and Dan Skelton are inevitably well represented.
He said: "Fastish ground and a right hand track suit New Agenda ideally, and he ran well last year, since when he has learned to settle and so gets the trip much better than he used to. I wouldn't think he would be far away."
Nicholls saddles last Sunday's good Chepstow second Amour De Nuit. Although a useful stayer for Sir Mark Prescott, the five-year-old is arguably better at 2m than 2m4f over hurdles, or at least that's what the trainer thinks.
He said: "Amour De Nuit ran very well in the Persian War and two miles suits him better. He travelled very well and he's a tough horse who should be suited by the race."
Dan Skelton saddles the highly progressive mare Listen To The Man, who bids for a fourth successive win.
He said: "Listen To The Man is a very uncomplicated mare who won a Listed handicap last time and on numbers comes in strong in this kind of race. She's shown a good level of form and has got to be competitive."
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