Cheltenham ante post: Paul Nicholls yet to commit potential stars to the 2022 Festival

Top trainer Paul Nicholls is yet to finale plans for his Cheltenham Festival battalion.Top trainer Paul Nicholls is yet to finale plans for his Cheltenham Festival battalion.

Paul Nicholls is yet to finalise plans for his Cheltenham Festival runners

Paul Nicholls has been leading trainer at the Cheltenham Festival on six occasions. Five of those came in a six-year spell between 2004 and 2009 when he and Ruby Walsh dominated proceedings. Nicholls has been reluctant to commit his talented young horses to the rigours of the Cheltenham Festival this season. Bravemansgame, Stage Star and Iceo all feature in the bookmakers’ lists for the big meeting but will they be given the green light?

Bravemansgame considered likely to run in Brown Advisory

Bravemansgame has always been held in high regard by Nicholls, earning favourable comparisons with Gold Cup winner Denman. He won the Grade 1 Challow Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury in 2020 by 20 lengths. That set him up for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival but he proved no match for Bob Olinger and faded into third. He then started favourite at Aintree but came up against the impressive Ahoy Senor and was beaten 7 lengths.

Nicholls had been itching to unleash him over fences and pitched him in at Intermediate level, beating the high class Fusil Raffles by five and a half lengths. Harry Cobden sent him straight to the front and was never headed. He was even more impressive in following up at Haydock from Itchy Feet and then faced old rival Ahoy Senor in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton.

Ahoy Senor attempted to make all the running but is a big, raw individual and made a couple of costly errors. Cobden always had him in his sights and strode clear to avenge his Liverpool defeat. Nicholls post-race reaction was rather cool about Cheltenham but he seems to have warmed to the idea and Bravemansgame is currently 4-1 second favourite.

Stage Star could go straight to Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle

Another horse with enormous potential at Ditcheat is Stage Star, a six-year-old gelding by Fame And Glory. Third in a Grade 2 bumper at Aintree last April, he has won all three starts over hurdles easily. He faced his first proper test in the Challow Hurdle but readily accounted for West Balboa by six and a half lengths. Once again, Nicholls did not sound overly keen to run at Cheltenham when questioned after the race, hinting that he would be happy to wait for Aintree. 

The latest bulletin on Stage Star suggests that he will run in the Ballymore, possibly without another race. He will also have an entry in the two-mile Supreme Hurdle but would only run there if conditions were very testing. Stage Star is a general 8-1 chance for the Ballymore behind the fancied Irish trio Sir Gerhard, Dysart Dynamo and Journey With Me.

Iceo plans uncertain despite Kempton romp

The third of the Nicholls-trained trio is Iceo, less well-known after one run on British soil. Already a winner in France, he made his debut for the yard at Kempton just after Christmas and stormed home by 17 lengths under Bryony Frost.

That earned him quotes as short as 8-1 for the Triumph Hurdle, although he can be backed at 14-1 for that race. In post-race interviews, Nicholls made it clear that he sees Iceo as a future chaser so the Triumph Hurdle was not a priority. He did add that the horse could go there if the going was soft so it may be a case of “hold your bets” on Iceo for the time being.