Paul Nicholls has identified next year’s Randox Grand National as a long-term target for his sidelined stable star Topofthegame.
Winner of the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, the Flemensfirth gelding finished second to Lostintranslation at Aintree the following month but has not been seen in competitive action since.
Just as was the case this season before injury intervened, Nicholls hopes to see his charge return to action in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury at the end of November.
However, while he once considered him a serious contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, he now views the world’s most famous steeplechase as a more suitable aim for the nine-year-old.
Speaking on a call hosted by Great British Racing ahead of being crowned champion trainer for a 12th time at Sandown on Saturday, Nicholls said of Topofthegame: “He’s fine and the plan would be for him to come in on July 1 and aim him again at the Ladbrokes Trophy.
“Now he’s a bit older this year and has had a few problems – in my view, the race to train him for would be the National.
“I think he would be fantastic round Aintree as he’s got some class.
“My aim is to try to get him back on track and have a good crack at trying to win the National with him.
“It’s not going to be easy – it’s a challenge – but he’s in good shape at the moment.”
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Paul Nicholls has been forced to rule his classy chaser Topofthegame out for another season.
Winner of the RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham in 2019, Nicholls had high hopes he would develop into a Gold Cup contender last season.
However, as his preparation for last year’s Ladbrokes Trophy was stepping up a gear he was halted by a leg injury.
While the problem was nothing too serious, Nicholls felt a year on the sidelines would give him the best chance of returning this season – with the Ladbrokes Trophy again his aim – in tip-top shape.
Unfortunately, with the Newbury feature just weeks away, the eight-year-old has been ruled out again.
“I’ve scratched him from the Betfair (Chase) and Ladbrokes Trophy as I’ve just had to draw stumps for the season with him,” said Nicholls on Monday.
“The warning lights have been flashing for the last couple of weeks. I was not happy with him last week and we had the vet scan him today and although there is no tear he just needs more time to recover, so we will leave him for the rest of the season and get him back for next season.
“He had the tendon injury last season and he is still not strong enough to do full training. If we had carried on he would have broken down, but as we have stopped there is a good chance we will get him back for next season.
“We had done everything can, but when the warning lights come on you simply have to stop and after having him scanned this morning it confirmed what myself and Clifford (Baker) thought.”
The Betfair ambassador added: “It’s part and parcel of the game and he was always going to be difficult as he is so fragile, but hopefully we will get him back for another day. We have lots of other horses for these races, but I’m gutted for his owners.”
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With a host of exciting new arrivals joining forces with several established stars returning for more, there is good reason why Paul Nicholls is heading into the new season full of optimism.
Though dethroned as champion trainer by Nicky Henderson last term, the coveted crown could be heading back to Nicholls and Manor House Stables for a 12th time with his team possessing plenty of strength in depth.
Helping Nicholls enjoy success on the big stage in recent times has been the emergence of Clan Des Obeaux, who has developed into a genuine Grade One performer thanks to back-to-back wins in the King George VI Chase.
A third shot at glory in the Boxing Day feature beckons before Nicholls will explore an alternative route for the eight-year-old, who for the second year running came up short in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Nicholls said: “I’m thinking of starting off in the Betfair Chase at Haydock then going to Kempton as it suits him well, so the King George on Boxing Day will be his main target.
“He won’t have a Cheltenham Gold Cup entry as like Silviniaco Conti he seems a stone worse there. After Christmas I’m thinking of doing things a bit differently and my main aim then would be the Punchestown Gold Cup.
“We could get him nice and fresh for that and let the others do battle at Cheltenham and Aintree. He is eight now, but I think he is as good now as he has ever been.”
An outing in the Gold Cup remains the target for the returning Topofthegame, who will tread the same path Denman did before landing the blue riband in 2008, by taking in the Ladbrokes Trophy – formerly the Hennessy Gold Cup – as a first port of call.
Nicholls said: “If we can keep him right we know he has a huge amount of ability and we are aiming to go to the Ladbrokes Trophy. I’m not sure what we do straight after Christmas but the Gold Cup will be our sole aim.
“The season out hasn’t done any harm as he strengthened up and matured and he looks great. Denman won an RSA and went on to win a Gold Cup and I’d like to think this lad can do the same.”
After becoming the first horse to lower the colours of Altior over jumps in the Christy 1965 Chase at Ascot, Cyrname failed to reach those heights in two subsequent starts last term – but Nicholls is confident the eight-year-old can bounce back beginning in the Ladbrokes Champion Chase at Down Royal.
He said: “Nothing went right after beating Altior at Ascot. He had a hard race there and never really got over it in time before Kempton and the ground in the Ascot Chase was desperate.
“The plan is to go to Down Royal and we will know truly if he gets three miles, if he does we will go to Kempton on Boxing Day. If he doesn’t get three miles at Down Royal he has no chance of getting three miles at Kempton.
“I’m not bothered about going left-handed now with him and if you watch him at Ascot last season he was jumping out a little to his left.”
Politologue finally gained the Cheltenham Festival success missing from his CV with victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase in March, and everything will be geared towards the defence of his crown in five months’ time.
Nicholls said: “He had a few issues bleeding and he had a bleed in the Tingle Creek. I rang John (Hales, owner) and said I don’t want to run him before Cheltenham and just leave me to have him ready for the day.
“It was probably the best we ever had him and though the race fell apart a bit he could have still been very hard to beat.
“He will go straight to the Tingle Creek. We will have him ready for his life like he was at Cheltenham.
“There are always new horses coming through, but he is still capable of competing at the top level.”
It is eight years since Nicholls tasted glory in the Randox Health Grand National with Neptune Collonges, and in Truckers Lodge he could have a horse capable of giving him a second victory in the Aintree marathon.
He said: “We had a plan to try to win the Welsh National and he wasn’t beaten very far. If we had more confidence in his staying ability we could have had a different result.
“He won the Midlands National impressively and the Grand National will have to be the target this season.
“There is a £25,000 limited handicap over three and a quarter miles at Kelso at the end of the month and we will probably start him there and then give him an entry in the Ladbrokes Trophy.”
Nicholls has often excelled with his novice chasing team and Betfair Hurdle winner Pic D’Orhy could prove the pick of those switching to fences this campaign.
He said: “He won the Betfair Hurdle last season, but he was bought to be a chaser. He has just started to jump nicely. He just needs to give fences a bit more respect as he is not a natural that has a bit of scope and respect for them.
“He is likely to go to Market Rasen for the race I won with Ayzertyuiop and Dynamite Dollars. It is a good starting point for him.”
A recent wind operation will hopefully help revive the fortunes of Grade One winner Laurina – one of 16 horses Nicholls has received from owner Jared Sullivan over the summer.
Nicholls said: “She started off very well last season beating Minella Indo, then she bled twice I’m led to believe. We’ve done her wind and I’m hoping that was one of the reasons making her bleed.
“I’m going to start her off in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot over two-mile-three. We could mix and match as there are some good mares’ chases in this country.”
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