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Cheltenham Chances: A look at Paul Nicholls' Festival runners

Second-up in our Cheltenham Chances series looking ahead to next month's Cheltenham Festival is Britain's champion handler, Paul Nicholls.

The Ditcheat supremo was crowned leading trainer at the Festival four times on the trot from 2006-2009 during a golden era for his yard that was headlined by icons like Kauto Star, Denman, Big Buck's and Master Minded.

Nicholls was without a winner at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival and his running tally stands four shy of a half-century on 46.

Here is a look at some of his leading contenders for Festival glory in 2022, with all the action available on our Sports Live Streaming platform.

Stage set for Star turn

There's no doubting that Nicholls doesn't quite have the firepower of days gone by in his squad now, something the man himself routinely points to.

The Irish dominance of the 2021 Festival left Nicholls without a win, some of his perceived leading chancing coming up well short against their counterparts from across the Irish Sea.

He'll be eager not to go two years without a winner at this meeting, something that hasn't happened since before those halcyon days from 2006 onwards.

Amongst his leading hopefuls will be Stage Star at 7/1 in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle on 16th March.

An excellent bumper horse last season, Stage Star has won three-from-three this term since going jumping.

Wins at Chepstow and Newbury came in October and November before he made a winning rise in Grade 1 company in landing the Challow Novices' Hurdle at the latter venue in late December.

The Christmas contest has been won in recent years by Champ, Thyme Hill and Nicholls' own Bravemansgame. The mighty Denman also won the Challow in 2005.

While the likes of Dysart Dynamo, Constitution Hill, Jonbon and Sir Gerhard all have the Ballymore as a 'second option' after the opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle (all doubly-entered), this is the race Stage Star will be taking in and Britain's champion trainer will have high hopes he can do well.

Most Festival wins as a trainer

Willie Mullins78
Nicky Henderson64
Paul Nicholls46
Fulke Walwyn40
Martin Pipe34

Ready to be the Braveman

Perhaps the most exciting member of the Nicholls team heading for Cheltenham is going to be Bravemansgame, currently 7/2 in the betting for the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase over three-miles on 16th March.

After winning the Challow last season, Bravemansgame was placed at the major spring festivals. He was third in the Ballymore at Cheltenham behind Bob Olinger and then second to Ahoy Senor at Aintree.

A horse Nicholls compared favourably to Denman last year, it was always likely that he would really come into his own as a chaser and so it is proving now.

His trainer took no prisoners early on, wins at Newton Abbot and Haydock coming against proven chasers like Fusil Raffles and Itchy Feet as Bravemansgame defied a lack of experience over fences.

From the get-go, his technique has impressed clearing fences. He gets from A-to-B without a fuss and there have been no hints of mistakes thus far.

At Kempton on Boxing Day he faced his biggest challenge, re-engaging battle with Ahoy Senor, the Lucinda Russell inmate that looks oh-so impressive at Newbury in his Grade 2 romp previously.

Bravemansgame stalked his every move in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices' Chase, again jumping flawlessly under Harry Cobden. He moved to lead at the second last and scampered clear for a 7½-lengths win in real style.

He is without a doubt the best novice chaser in Britain this season.

The likes of Bob Olinger, currently 8/1 for Henry De Bromhead, and Galopin Des Champs at 6/4 for Willie Mullins are possible leading Irish contenders coming to Cheltenham, but Bravemansgame is clearly a better chaser than he was a hurdler and he could serve up some revenge to the raiding party for his defeat last March.

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Threeunderthrufive and playing well

Another interesting novice chaser for Nicholls is Threeunderthrufive, the McNeill Family-owned seven-year-old with the golfing connotations in his name.

The 'front nine' of his first season over fences has gone rather well. He was second at Chepstow in October behind Does He Know first time out but soon avenged that reverse at the same venue in November having also squeezed in a win at Exeter in between.

Further successes have come at Doncaster and Warwick either side of Christmas in Grade 2 contests over three-miles, ensuring Threeunderthrufive has won four of his five starts this season.

He's clutching two entries at the Festival. The National Hunt Cup for amateur riders on day one over three-and-a-quarter-miles looks the race he might excel in, give his stamina, and he's 14/1 in that market.

He also holds an entry in the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase over three-miles on the Wednesday, a race he is 16/1 to win.

Given that Nicholls has Bravemansgame in the latter race, his preference might be for the longer race on 15th March, though owners the McNeills could be eager to allow regular rider Adrian Heskin stay on board, ruling out the National Hunt Cup.

The longer race looks the best option and, with bet365 now Non-runner-No-bet on all races at Cheltenham, punters have that security net should he be aimed elsewhere.

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