Paul Nicholls already has his eyes on a major prize with Darling Maltaix in Market Rasen’s Betway Summer Plate, as preparations for the new National Hunt season begin to step up a gear.
The eight-year-old, owned by the Old Gold Racing syndicate, won comfortably at Newton Abbot last month on his return from a lengthy break, having also had another wind operation.
Nicholls hopes that should have put him spot-on for Saturday’s assignment, but he is aware the competition will be much tougher.
“It’s a race everyone targets in the summer,” said the multiple champion trainer.
“We schooled Darling Maltaix this morning (Thursday). He’s been trained for this race, and I’m very happy with his prep – his run and win at Newton Abbot last month has really tightened him up.
“Saturday’s one of the toughest races he’s ever run in, and it promises to be a competitive contest, but Darling’s ready for it.
“He looks brilliant in his skin, he’s fit, he’s relaxed and he’s working well – there’s lots of little crumbs to make a cake!”
This weekend’s big handicap has long been on the agenda for Darling Maltaix.
“The Summer Plate has always been his aim, but we did want to get one run in before it, so it worked out really nicely,” added Nicholls.
“He only went up 3lb, so you couldn’t complain about that too much.
“He has won on the soft – it was soft the other day. But good ground does suit him well – the faster the better really.”
Nicholls, not really known for his summer jumpers, reports most of his big guns for the winter have now returned to his Ditcheat yard after their breaks.
“We’ve got 120 in now and we’ll just go quietly, quietly until Chepstow in October,” he said.
“Chepstow is still a long way off, and that is where we always aim. We’ve got a lot of nice horses in.”
The likely favourite for the Summer Plate is Dr Richard Newland’s novice Captain Tom Cat, who has won his last three starts by 12, 11 and 29 lengths respectively.
Peter Bowen has already won the race on six occasions and saddles both Francky Du Berlais and course-and-distance winner Lord Bryan in his bid for further success.
Bowen said: “We do target the race every year, because lots of our horses run very well at this time of year. It is also a good race for novices coming through.
“We sent (Francky Du Berlais) up to Cartmel the other day, but that track didn’t suit him at all. He was always on the back burner and he couldn’t really get into the race, but he stayed on really well and he was only beaten by about five lengths – I’m quite hopeful with him.
“Lord Bryan goes well fresh. He did a nice piece of work on Tuesday and he is a strong traveller, which is what you want around there.”
Solomon Grey and Danse Idol give Dan Skelton a strong hand, while Laura Morgan steps Fire Away up in class following his victories over fences at Cartmel and hurdles at Worcester.
Amy Murphy, who landed last year’s Summer Plate with Really Super, is this year represented by stable stalwart Mercian Prince.
“He’s been with us from day one, and we are really fortunate to have him,” she said.
“He’s just been unbelievable, and to have him going into another Grade Three is very exciting. We’ve been trying to protect his mark over fences, hence why he hasn’t been seen over them of late.
“He is such a yard favourite – if he did win I don’t think there would be a dry eye in the house.”