Cheltenham Festival: Paul Nicholls cuts squad to 'around 25' runners

Paul Nicholls
Nicholls, based in Somerset, has been champion trainer eight times
Cheltenham Festival 2015
Dates: Tuesday 10 to Friday 13 March. Big races: Tue - Champion Hurdle, Wed - Champion Chase, Thur - World Hurdle, Fri - Gold Cup.Coverage: Every race on BBC Radio 5 live or 5 Live Sports extra

Paul Nicholls is cutting his 2015 Cheltenham Festival squad by a third and will run "around 25" hopefuls at next month's big meeting.

But supporters of jump racing's eight-time champion trainer need not worry that his challenge is being diluted.

In fact Nicholls - the winner of 34 races at Festivals over the years and enjoying another fruitful season - believes the opposite is true.

"Thirty-six [runners, yielding just one success] last year was too many," he said. "I don't want to be taking horses there just for a day out, so it's a more select team.

"And it's probably as good as we've had for a while, since we had those good horses of the past, like Kauto [Star], Denman and Master Minded.

"And it's nice to have more chasers than we've had for a few years. I think the novice hurdlers are going to be going to [the Grand National Festival at] Aintree, so they can dodge Willie," he added with a smile.

Willie is Irish champion Willie Mullins, whose team of around 50 horses has enormous strength in depth in practically every division, but particularly when it comes to the races for young hurdlers.

Leading the Nicholls charge is dual King George VI Chase winner Silviniaco Conti, favourite for the Betfred Gold Cup and due to be joined in the line-up by Sam Winner.

Silviniaco Conti
Silviniaco Conti, ridden by Noel Fehily, has twice won the King George VI Chase

The Nicholls team will be hoping to give AP McCoy a successful big race send-off before retirement with Mr Mole, who should contest the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase along with stablemate Dodging Bullets.

Saphir du Rheu and Zarkandar are earmarked for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle which Nicholls won four times on the trot with Big Buck's (2009-12).

A large proportion of the runners will be ridden by new number one jockey Sam Twiston-Davies, though Noel Fehily is to partner Silviniaco Conti as part of an arrangement with the owners.

Since taking over from Daryl Jacob, Twiston-Davies has found the hot seat very warm indeed on occasions, but also highly rewarding, and has won more prize money than any of his rivals this season, including McCoy.

Despite regular chatter about how long the association might last, Nicholls expressed admiration for the 22-year-old jockey and the hope that he might be in the right place to replace McCoy as champion.

"He's got to be up there in the running, hasn't he?" said the trainer.

Sam Twiston-Davies and Paul Nicholls
Nicholls' top jockey Sam Twiston-Davies tops the prize money list for riders in the UK this season

"Sam has done amazingly well [this season]. A lot of people thought it might not last, and it was the wrong decision, and one thing and another, but I've never once thought that.

"He's going to make mistakes - he's made a couple - and we've discussed it and he's improved all the time. As I said when he started, he's an investment for the future."

While the link with Twiston-Davies has been one of the big talking points of the jumps campaign as regards Nicholls, another - probably even bigger now - has been about Silviniaco Conti and Cheltenham.

In the last two Gold Cups, the nine-year-old horse, owned by businessmen Chris Giles and Jared Sullivan, has come into the closing stages looking a pretty likely winner only for things to go wrong.

In 2013, the horse fell at the third last, while last time around, having been bang there at the final obstacle, he faded to fourth behind Lord Windermere. So does he have an aversion to the Cheltenham challenge?

Nicholls, the winner of four Gold Cups - with See More Business (1999), Kauto Star (2007, 2009) and Denman (2008) - insists not.

"He's run well at Cheltenham," he said. "He ran very well when he fell, you can forgive any horse that. Last year he jumped the last in front so he hardly didn't act on the course.

"What he is doing now is finishing his races better than he did last year. Even at Aintree when he won [after the Gold Cup] he didn't finish his race like I'd like him to.

"Last year I think he idled in front, and we put the cheekpieces on to stop him idling.

"I'm very happy with him, and confident about his chance. If you don't go in confident, it's not worth bothering, and his form is the best.

"You've got to be positive, and we are about him and all of them that are going to Cheltenham."

Paul Nicholls with his two Gold Cup contenders - Silviniaco Conti and Sam Winner
Nicholls has two Gold Cup contenders - Silviniaco Conti and Sam Winner

Nicholls on his biggest hitters

GOLD CUP

Silviniaco Conti: "He looks terrific his coat and way better than he did at this time last year. He won the King George very nicely, it was a probably a career-best performance. He's finishing his races strongly this year. On form, he has a massive chance."

Sam Winner: "He's my other one for the Gold Cup, and he's done nothing but improve. Sam [Twiston-Davies] will ride him. He goes well fresh, loves Cheltenham and is a real live outsider."

QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE

Dodging Bullets: "On form he deserves to be favourite, but he's not. He's had a fantastic season, winning the Tingle Creek at Sandown and the Clarence House nicely at Ascot, beating Sprinter Sacre, and he had plenty left in the tank. He's in really good form."

Mr Mole: "He deserves the title of the most improved horse in training. He's won his last four races, and has followed the same route as [former Champion Chaser] Master Minded when he won the race. He's hugely talented and a lot more mature this year. He's on a roll at the moment and has a great chance in a very open race."

WORLD HURDLE

Saphir Du Rheu: "He went chasing, but things didn't entirely work out so we thought as he's still young, and the World Hurdle is wide open, we would try him back over hurdles. He gallops and jumps and I think there's a lot of improvement to come."

Zarkandar: "He won the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham four years ago, and has had a great season, winning the French Champion Hurdle in the autumn very nicely, and getting beaten a short head at Ascot at Christmas when pulling himself up in front. He looks great and I think he has a fantastic chance."