Nicholls tips the old guard for Gold
Next month's Champion Hurdle is widely considered as being potentially one of the best in recent years and the Gold Cup may be no different with three past winners taking on a promising younger guard.
Trainer Paul Nicholls feels that his duo of Denman and Kauto Star have to be right up there in contention for the feature of next month's enthralling festival.
"There are some interesting young horses in there like Long Run and Diamond Harry but I still think the three older horses, Denman, Kauto Star and Imperial Commander, are the ones to beat," said Nicholls.
"I've always thought Diamond Harry was a good horse, although he has to turn around the weight in the Hennessy with Denman, and if Long Run can repeat his Kempton form at Cheltenham then he is a big danger.
"It's the most interesting Gold Cup for a long time and if they all get there in one piece it will be a great race."
With last year's winner, Imperial Commander, lightly campaigned this season and both Denman and Kauto Star having their problems and then remedies, there is a fascinating race in store. "Denman had a soft palate operation after his last run and he is definitely working better up our hill now," Nicholls continued.
"He ran a cracking race at the weights in the Hennessy and we decided that we didn't want to run hum again after that.
"He's obviously 11 and not getting any younger but he looks great in his coat."
Of his dual winner Kauto Star, who became the first ever horse to regain the blue riband of chasing, Nicholls reported him to be on course for a racecourse gallop ahead of the big day.
"Kauto Star was a bit disappointing at Kempton but Riverside Theatre franked the form of that race on Saturday," said Nicholls. "He had a trickle of blood in the bucket after that run so you can forgive him that.
"He jumped nicely when he won at Down Royal prior to that and I hope to give him a racecourse gallop before Cheltenham which is something we've not done before."
Nicholls could also run Neptune Collognes, who "loves Cheltenham and always runs his race", while What A Friend wouldn't run "if it was testing ground" and "he has to improve remarkably to figure in the Gold Cup."
Like Denman, Master Minded has undergone a wind-operation. "Obviously last season was a bit of a damp squib but Master Minded had a breathing operation and is a different animal since," said Nicholls. "He looks different this season as well.
"He idles in front and last time AP said he was in front too soon. We had him very fit for his first two runs and then we backed off him so, although it sounds strange to say it, I think he wasn't as fit last time as earlier in the season.
"But he looks fab now, he's going nicely and he has an outstanding chance at Cheltenham," added the trainer.