Paul Nicholls expects Dodging Bullets to be 'much better'

Dodging Bullets in action at Newbury earlier this year
Dodging Bullets in action at Newbury earlier this year

Paul Nicholls is having the most topsy-turvy season a top horse trainer could imagine.

On the positive side, he’s heading for a ninth British Trainers’ Championship in the last ten seasons. He has already won almost £1.5m in prize money, even before the lucrative Festivals of Cheltenham and Aintree are staged.

And his horses are in cracking form as Cheltenham looms this week, with the great man banging in doubles and trebles all over Britain’s racecourses of late as the most important week of the jumps season is upon us.

But there are negatives. For instance, you can only get 5/2 from the bookies that Nicholls will go winless for the four days.

He has not had those Saturday big-race winners that he had for fun last term – 23 of them on the spin. And to top it off, the best two horses in the stables, and what might have been his finest chances of a winner this week, Silviniaco Conti and Dodging Bullets, cannot be relied on.

‘Conti’ is not even going to Cheltenham with Nicholls  finally admitting that his charge doesn’t like the great course beneath Cleeve Hill.

Twice he has gone off favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, twice he has flopped, and the trainer is steering his horse at the Grand National instead, with ‘third-time lucky’ not at all part of Nicholls’s thinking.

Dodging Bullets will be there on Wednesday to defend his two-mile Champion Chase crown, but he was injured for the first half of the season and on his comeback run last month at Newbury, ‘Dodge’ was seriously put in his place by a handicapper.

Even allowing for the fact that Dodging Bullets will surely improve hugely for that outing, and the trainer says that is exactly what will happen, my goodness he will have to come on for the run massively if the horse is to beat all of Un de Sceaux, Sprinter Sacre, Sire de Grugy, Special Tiara and Somersby in what promises to be an epic renewal of the race.

“I expect him to be much better at Cheltenham, on what will be better ground too, and we’ve got a lot of good graft into him on the gallops since Newbury,” Nicholls adds, “it’s just that this time last year he was going into the Champion Chase having won the two recognised trials in Britain, the Tingle Creek at Sandown and the Clarence House at Ascot. That’s not the case this year, so you have to be a big doubtful.

“If Un de Sceaux jumps around he is going to be very hard to beat, we know that. But the horse has made a few mistakes in his time and if he went off a bit too fast in front, we might be around to finish off the race better than he could.

“Whatever happens at Cheltenham I expect ‘Dodge’ to be better again at Sandown on the last day of the season in April,” Nicholls continues. “the season has just been a nightmare of injuries with him.”

Had Aux Ptits Soins enjoyed an injury-free run over the course of this campaign, Nicholls believes he might have been a real contender for Thursday’s three-mile World Hurdle.

“This is a class horse, but he has had three different operations since last September, for a splint, for a tooth problem and an abcess. I wish we’d been able to get a run into him before Cheltenham, to see if he truly stays the distance of Thursday’s race.

“We know he’s got class from the way he won the Coral Cup at Cheltenham last year on his first outing on an English racecourse,” Nicholls added, “and now we’re asking him to go from winning a handicap to winning a Grade One on his first spin of the season. But we’ve got nowhere else to go with him.”

Thus, for winners this week, Nicholls will look instead to selected novice races and handicaps. 

Knowing that he might be short of a horse or two for the Championship tasks, you can be sure the 53-year-old has a few nicely handicapped horses in the many boxes at his Ditcheat stables deep in England’s West Country.

Each of them are exposed enough to get into their target races, but not carrying too much weight either that might anchor them against some craftily-placed Irish ones.

He also has four likely runners in Friday’s opener, the Triumph Hurdle for good quality four-year-olds –  Connetable, Frodon, Tommy Silver and Clan des Obeaux.

“We may throw them all in,” he insists, “they are good horses and there’s no where else for them to go.

“The four-year-old form is a bit all over the place this year - with a horse beating his rivals one day, then flopping the next. It’s a bit the same in Ireland too. So we may as well take our chance with the lot of them.”

“Whatever they do on Friday, Tommy Silver and Clan des Obeaux are two you will hear about in the chasing ranks in the next few years.”