Paul Nicholls concerned by dip in form ahead of Newbury Betfair Hurdle day

Paul Nicholls is hoping that his form picks up before next month's Cheltenham Festival.Paul Nicholls is hoping that his form picks up before next month's Cheltenham Festival.

Paul Nicholls’ stable isn’t firing on all cylinders at present

Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls decided not to have any runners in the early part of this week after a mysterious dip in form by the stable. He suspects a temporary problem with the feed is the cause and hopes it is no more than a short-term blip. It is an important week for the yard with leading Cheltenham hope Bravemansgame among his entries for Betfair Hurdle day at Newbury on Saturday.

Strike rate plummets to five per cent

Only two of his last forty runners were successful; Danny Kirwan at Wincanton on 26th January and Dolos on 5th February. Several of his horses have run well below form, notably Dublin Festival raiders Frodon and Greaneteen who were the last to finish in each of their races. Others to disappoint include Highland Hunter and Soldier Of Love at Musselburgh and Pic D’Orhy at Sandown. All tests have come back negative and there have been no outside signs of any kind of problem with the horses.

Nicholls recalls an issue with the hay being low in potassium and calcium caused a similar short-term problem in 2015-16 and has already taken steps to deal with that scenario. He is certainly not panicking over the running plans of his stable stars but it is far from ideal with some very important races coming up. Most immediately, Stage Star is entered for Thursday’s Sidney Banks Memorial Novices’ Hurdle at Huntingdon. He was expected to underline his claims for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham next month.

Saturday is Betfair Hurdle Day at Newbury, a race Nicholls has won with the classy Zarkandar (2012) and Pic D’Orhy (2020). He trains ante-post favourite Knappers Hill, third to the highly-rated Jonbon at Ascot in December. The valuable Betfair Hurdle has been the plan for some time and he is as short as 9-2 favourite with some firms.

Bravemansgame and Clan Des Obeaux engaged at Newbury

Had the stable not been under something of a cloud, Saturday would have all the makings of a red-letter day. Dual King George VI Chase winner Clan Des Obeaux heads the entries for the Grade 2 Denman Chase, a race he was narrowly beaten in last year by stable companion Secret Investor. He went on to record Grade 1 victories at Aintree and Punchestown. He was last seen finishing runner-up in the King George behind Tornado Flyer at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Star novice chaser Bravemansgame would only run in the Denman if Clan Des Obeaux were unable to take part. His preferred target is the Limited Handicap Chase on the same card. Unbeaten in all three starts over fences, his Kauto Star Novices’ Chase win looks even better with runner-up Ahoy Senor having won easily since. Cheltenham is not on the agenda for Tingle Creek Chase runner-up Hitman who has a leading chance in the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase. 

Stage Star and Bravemansgame could go straight to Cheltenham but obviously Nicholls would prefer not to be facing such difficult decisions so close to the Festival. To keep things in perspective, the trainer has already sent out over 100 winners this season and won nearly £1.8million in prize money. Hopefully the problem can quickly be resolved but his runners will come under extra scrutiny for the next couple of weeks.