09 February 2023

Betfair Hurdle day at Newbury is one Nicholls looks forward to

09 February 2023

Champion trainer Paul Nicholls is readying a strong squad for one of his favourite meetings of the season at Newbury on Saturday.

Two solid chances in the feature Betfair Hurdle with Hacker Des Places and Rubaud, Hitman looking to get back on track in the race named after former Ditcheat star Denman and McFabulous aiming to emulate Bravemansgame in the opening race, there is plenty to go at.

But it is Greaneteen in the Betfair Exchange Game Spirit Chase Nicholls will be watching with most interest, given how the Queen Mother Champion Chase picture has changed in recent weeks.

The defeats of Energumene, Edwardstone and Blue Lord have opened up the race and Nicholls hopes his three-time Grade One winner can re-enter the picture.

“He ran very well in the Champion Chase two years ago when I don’t think he was anywhere near as good a horse as he is now and he wasn’t beaten too far,” said Nicholls.

“The last couple of weeks the (Champion Chase) waters have been muddied a little bit, which often happens at this time of year, but we’ve always thought this was the perfect race to run him before Cheltenham.

“He loves good ground and I’ve left him a little short rather than have him fully wound up like I did for the Haldon Gold Cup, which was possibly why he was a little bit flat in the Tingle Creek this year.

“We’ve left plenty to work on, he’s nice and fresh so hopefully he’ll run very well en route to Cheltenham.”

In the Betfair Hurdle Nicholls saddles the second- and third-favourites behind Emmet Mullins’ Filey Bay.

“Hacker Des Places keeps on going up a little bit and has a 5lb penalty so we could have done without that – he did surprise me by winning the other day so he could well be improving. Angus (Cheleda) does take the 5lb off,” he said.

“Angus gets on very well with him. He won at Aintree on him and the other day at Cheltenham and rides him most days at home so that 5lb is handy. He probably learned the last day not to be in front too soon.

“Rubaud has only got a mark of 130 and I actually think that’s OK compared to some of my other novices.

“It’s a competitive race, but there’s no Champion Hurdle horse in it like there can be some years so it’s a good competitive handicap.

“You always hope your novices are decent, he’d only had one poor run last year but he came from France and hadn’t acclimatised. I did always like him and I didn’t want to run again after Kempton and risk getting a penalty, praying it was going to be good ground. We’re hoping we’ve got a live chance.”

McFabulous may not go on to emulate King George winner Bravemansgame – who won this race 12 months ago – but he is already rated highly.

He loves good ground, won very nicely in a Grade Two earlier in the season and while he might have plenty of weight I'm sure he'll take a bit of beating

Nicholls said: “He’s got to run off a mark of 153 which is quite tough, but there are only two others declared. One is getting a stone off him and the other a stone and a half so that evens it up a bit.

“He loves good ground, won very nicely in a Grade Two earlier in the season and while he might have plenty of weight I’m sure he’ll take a bit of beating.”

Nicholls also runs two nice types in Fire Flyer and Meatloaf in the closing Betfair-sponsored bumper, but says nothing should be read into jockey bookings.

“In the bumper, which is always a nice race – we ran Al Ferof in it before he was second to Cue Card at Cheltenham – we have Fire Flyer who won nicely at Ascot, we like him a lot, and Meatloaf who won at Wincanton and was just touched off at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day,” said Nicholls.

“Jockey-wise Lorcan (Williams) won on Fire Flyer and Harry (Cobden) has ridden Meatloaf so I made the decisions. I wouldn’t know which is better than the other.”

For once there appears to be little doubt whether a big weekend meeting will take place, with clerk of the course Keith Ottesen and his team covering the track from the frost earlier in the week.

Ottesen said: “We’re in a good place and will be fine for Saturday. It dropped to minus 2C overnight, but by 7am there was no frost. It’s going to be slow, good ground and it’s very different to what it was in November when we were having to water it a little bit to get it to good.

“It doesn’t look as though we’re going to freeze overnight on Friday so we’ll probably take the covers off on Friday.”

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