03 March 2022

Nicholls sweet on Challow winner Stage Star in Ballymore

03 March 2022

Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle contender Stage Star will carry high hopes for connections at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

Successful on his bumper debut at Chepstow last season before being placed at Ascot and Aintree, the six-year-old – who runs in the increasingly familiar colours of the Owners Group syndicate – is three from three over obstacles ahead of his trip to the Cotswolds.

The Fame And Glory gelding completed his hat-trick with a Grade One victory in the Challow Hurdle at Newbury in December and has been kept fresh for his the Festival since.

In a market dominated by the Irish, Stage Star is very much Britain’s leading hope – and trainer Paul Nicholls is keen on his chance.

“He was a good bumper horse last year and was always going to be a better horse this year. He’s won all three of his novice hurdles and you just wouldn’t know how good he might be,” said the champion trainer.

“He was ready to go to Exeter a fortnight ago, but the ground was so heavy that day and I didn’t want to give him a hard race, so we’ve just kept him nice and fresh.

“He had a piece of work at Wincanton 10 days ago and went very nicely with Monmiral.

“He’s probably one of our best chances of the week, I would say, and whatever happens he’ll be a lovely horse to go chasing next season.”

One of the Ditcheat handler’s most interesting handicap runners is McFabulous, who is being readied for a tilt at at the Coral Cup.

McFabulous is an interesting contender for the Coral Cup (Alan Crowhurst/PA) (PA Archive)

The multiple Grade Two winner made a promising start to his campaign when runner-up in the Relkeel Hurdle on New Year’s Day, and Nicholls believes his stamina limitations were exposed when stepped up to three miles for the Cleeve on Festival Trials Day.

He said: “He’s rated 150 and has 11st 8lb, but it looks like it could be a condensed handicap.

“I would have liked to have gone chasing with him this year, but he had an accident in the yard earlier in the season which set us back.

“He ran in the Relkeel and ran really well despite needing the run badly. We then went to the Cleeve and he blatantly didn’t get three miles up the Cheltenham hill.

“After that I said we’d go for the Coral Cup over two-miles-five, which should be the perfect trip.

“He went to Wincanton this morning (Thursday) and worked beautifully. I’d say he’s just starting to come right.”

Megan Nicholls celebrates winning aboard Knappers Hill at Aintree (David Davies/Jockey Club) (PA Archive)

Knappers Hill, who was last seen finishing sixth in the lucrative Betfair Hurdle, could step up in trip for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle if he makes the cut.

“He’s on a nice mark on 135, but he’ll be struggling to get in,” Nicholls added.

“If he gets in, he’ll run. He got pushed wide in the Betfair and stayed on, beaten six lengths. I’d say he’s doubtful to get in, in which case we’d go to Aintree.”

A potential “dark horse” among the Nicholls squad is Irish recruit Bell Ex One.

The four-year-old won twice from three starts over hurdles and four times overall for Ray Cody before changing hands for £110,000 at the Tattersalls Cheltenham December Sale.

Harry (Cobden) rode him work and loved him

He is set to debut for his new connections in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.

Nicholls said: “He’s won over hurdles and on the Flat in Ireland. He went to Wincanton, galloped quite nicely but I haven’t run him so I don’t know much about him.

“I’d say on what he’s done, 130 is quite a stiff mark. I’ve kept him for this, he just wouldn’t have been ready to have a run.

“He’s a bit of a dark horse, Harry (Cobden) rode him work and loved him, but I wouldn’t really have an opinion. He’s a nice horse and does everything right.

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