Champion trainer Paul Nicholls' challenge for the Cheltenham Festival is dominated by the Gold Cup duel between his chasing stars Denman and Kauto Star but he and his stable jockeys, Ruby Walsh and Sam Thomas, have a wealth of talent to represent them at the meeting which is now less than three weeks away.
Nicholls is 2-5 with William Hill to be the top trainer at the meeting with Walsh Evens favourite to be the top jockey at the four-day extravaganza. Here, Nicholl runs though the talented Festival supporting cast behind the big two.
NOLAND: Favourite for the Arkle Trophy. Picked up a bug after winning at Folkestone and was off colour for 10 days but is back in tip-top shape now. I hope to run him at Sandown on Friday, as long as the word firm doesn't appear in the going description, but alternatively he could run at Kempton on Saturday. I'd prefer Sandown because he needs to get experience of an undulating track. Because of the fatal fall of Granit Jack at Cheltenham in November, owner John Hales wants to get some more experience into Noland. But as a former winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, if we get him to the Arkle, he is the one to beat.
ELUSIVE DREAM: Ruby said after he won at Ascot last Saturday that he might be better suited by a flat track. There is a good chance he could go to Fontwell on Sunday. He's in the Spa Hurdle and the Ballymore Properties Novices' Hurdle. But then he could miss Cheltenham and go to Aintree instead. He jumps and stays well and next year could be on the shortlist for the Stayers' Hurdle.
DEAR VILLEZ: In the Sun Alliance Chase and the Jewsons Novices' Handicap Chase. Likes give in the ground and if he gets it he could be a lively outsider.
TURKO: Ran well when second behind The Listener in the Hennessy Gold Cup (3m) in Ireland when I wasn't sure he would get the trip. Although in the Gold Cup, he is almost certain to run in the Ryanair Chase.
PIERROT LUNAIRE: Entered in the big juvenile race at Kempton on Saturday (the Adonis Hurdle) and we'll know more after that race. He is in the the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and the Triumph. I think he has got a big engine and is capable of holding his own in whatever race he runs in.
SILVERBURN: Denman's full brother who has won two Grade Ones, the Tolworth Hurdle and the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase. Looked like he didn't stay when third to Joe Lively in the Feltham Novices' Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. But that was Ruby's first ride back after injury and I don't think he was fully fit. We made more use of him in the Scilly Isles at Sandown and put an emphasis on stamina which suited him. I'm confident he'll run a big race.
STAR DE MOHAISON: Won the Sun Alliance Chase two years ago and won at Aintree but then got heat in a leg. I've had some niggly problems with him but he looks fantastic. We're trying to get him to the Gold Cup but If not he'll go to Aintree. We've not seen the best of this horse yet.
MARODIMA: DIdn't run well at Ascot last time when fourth in the Lightning Novices' Chase but there were excuses. He doesn't get on very well with Timmy (Murphy) and Sam will ride him in the Arkle Trophy. We've freshened him up since and, if the ground is good, he is a lively outsider.
ORNAIS: If the handicapper is right, this is a certainty in the Sun Alliance Chase. He has put him on a mark of 156. I just thought he was a nice staying chaser but he may be right and I may be wrong.
CELESTIAL HALO: I left him a bit short at Doncaster when I was trying to give him an easy race and he ran into a good one (Sentry Duty). He stays really well and I think he will run a really big race in the Triumph Hurdle.
PASCO: He's in the Supreme Novices' and the County Hurdle and we'll have a look but suspect he'll run in the Supreme.
NEPTUNE COLLONGES: Probably produced a career best when he won at Wincanton last Saturday. He'll definitely run in the Gold Cup and, although I suspect he is better on flat tracks, he could be placed and deserves to take his chance.
FIVE DREAM: Ruby said after he was seventh in the totesport Gold Trophy that he was flat out all the way and he should be entered in (the longer) Coral Cup. We've taken Ruby's advice but he has other options.
CHAPOTURGEON: I hope that in 12 months time we'll be talking about him as one of our Arkle Trophy horses. He could run in the Fred Winter Juvenile Novices' Handicap Hurdle on the opening day of the Festival.
RIPPLING RING: Has good form on the Flat in South Africa but because of where he has come from, he has started growing his winter coat so we clipped him yesterday. I'd like to see two weeks of mild weather to get his coat right. He's joint favourite for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
ARTURIO: Backed down to a ridiculously short price at Wincanton as the ground was far too fast for him. His only entry at the Festival is the Jewsons Novices' Handicap Chase. He needs soft ground but will run well if he gets it.
MAHONIA: Won well at Chepstow last week. We've got some nice bumper horses but this is the only one we will enter in the Festival Bumper. He's been working well with FIve Dream.
THETOTHERONE: In the Spa Hurdle, the Ballymore Properties Novices' Hurdle and the Coral Cup but I suspect he'll go the novice route, especially if Elusive Dream goes to Fontwell and then misses the Festival.
BIG BUCK'S: Could run in the Arkle and I'd love to win at the Festival for his owner Andy Stewart but he looks to me like a horse who is crying out for a summer on his back to return stronger next season.
I'MSINGINGTHEBLUES: Runs at Kempton on Saturday and suspect we'll go the County Hurdle route rather than the novice one as the really fast pace in the handicap will suit this horse.
BREEDSBREEZE: The Tolworth Hurdle winner. Would only run in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle if the surface was testing and the (longer) Ballymore Properties Novices' Hurdle is more likely. He's done nothing but improve throughout the season.
MASTER MINDED: The joint favourite for the Champion Chase. Has been doing some sensational work this season. Received 6lb from Voy Por Ustedes when he beat him in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury but I don't think that made much difference and think he has improved since. Ruby is likely to ride him.
TWIST MAGIC: I made a pig's ear of running him at Ascot after Christmas when the ground was wrong. he wants good going and I feel he is a spring horse. Sam rode him to win the TIngle Creek and is likely to partner him again. Whereas Master Minded will not run again after Cheltenham, Twist Magic will be kept busy. I'm thinking of talking him to Punchestown in April and then bringing him back for the Grade One at Sandown.
The Big G