ANY alarm bells that began to ring loudly over the form of the Paul Nicholls yard were muted at Newbury on a day billed as ‘Super Saturday’.
The whispers were building towards a crescendo following a disappointing run that ended with big guns Frodon and Greaneteen running below par in Ireland last weekend, and the Ditcheat stable had drawn stumps over the last six days.
So the 12-times champion trainer could be forgiven for having some sense of relief when Bravemansgame sauntered past the post with three and a half lengths to spare.
While dual King George winner Clan Des Obeaux was well held in the Denman Chase and Hitman was a staying-on third in the Game Spirit, Nicholls also had a winner at Uttoxeter, making it a better day at the office, if not a stellar one.
Nicholls had a spell of one win in 36 at one point, but said: “I haven’t been able to pinpoint anything at all.
“All the ones that have run today have looked like Bravemansgame. They have done everything right. There has not even been one doubt, that would make you think, ‘the horses are coughing or sick’ and you don’t run them.
“I would put a line through 20 of the ones I ran last week – ground, not good enough, different things.
“In January, you can eliminate a lot of things. That is why I don’t get too involved in January, sometimes because of the ground or they have had a flu jab. From now on, we’ll start improving.
“The good horses always still run well and the ordinary ones will often run ordinary – you can’t do a lot about it.” Bravemansgame will now head to Cheltenham as second-favourite for the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.
And while Nicholls was satisfied with the way his horses ran compared to the last couple of weeks, numerous tests have been carried out to get to the bottom of some indifferent results.
“We won’t get the results of the potassium tests until next week, but everything else we have looked at.
“On Monday, I blood-tested 23 horses, of which 20 were normal and the only ones who weren’t were the two who ran in Ireland, and that is probably just because of their journey, but all the ones this week were spot on.
“They looked great, they worked great and they look like Bravemansgame. All of the ones today looked fantastic, so you crack on.
“Until you find something that tells you not to, you have got to kick on and that’s what you do.
“I have been running at 29 per cent (winners) all season. I am down to 23 per cent now and I’m still higher than all these other trainers, and at some stage over 12 months you are going to hit something of a quieter spell.
“I’ve had it before. I don’t worry about it. You crack on and do what you do best.
“To me, now all you have to do is get all these good horses ready for their spring targets.” Given such a powerful team, it would be natural that a spell without any runners after a barren run would see eyes and ears firmly fixed on the string, particularly with the Cheltenham Festival barely four weeks distant.
“Of course you worry about it,” admitted Nicholls.
“But I’ve learned over the years that if you have horses sick and bleeding or coughing at home, then I would have been worried, but knowing that we could not tell there was a problem – (head lad) Clifford (Baker) said there can’t be much, because they all look too good and they have all worked well, so you just tend to keep your head down and crack on.
“You are always going to have a little dip in form. You cannot operate at the level we had all year round. You are going to get a little blip from time to time. Every stable does. We have just gone through a quiet spell.
“You let the horses do the talking. I was fairly confident Bravemansgame would win today. If we had not had a winner today and it had all gone wrong, I would be pulling my hair out, but how well he ran and how he looked, I was thrilled with that.” Nicholls added: “He is a super horse and I think he will be even better next year when he has had another summer.
“He seems to keep maturing and it is nice to go to Cheltenham with a chance. Obviously he got beat last year. He was a big baby then and jumping fences over three miles is a different ball game. He is probably a much stronger, better horse now. He has a nice chance.” There were a couple beaten, of course. Hitman stuck on really well, but was four and a quarter lengths away in third behind Funambule Sivola.
And while Clan Des Obeaux was beaten a good 12 and a quarter lengths in the Denman Chase, he is getting on in years and, as Nicholls pointed out, has his own ideas about the game sometimes.
“Hitman will go to Aintree for the two-and-a-half-miler (Melling Chase). He is crying out for a trip.
“He just gallops and gallops. He will end up getting three miles next year, without a shadow doubt.
“Clan Des Obeaux is 10 now. He has been to war a few times and when he made that mistake four out, when he needed a big one, he half looked after himself a fraction.
“I just think a change of headgear will sharpen him. He will go to Aintree and he is always better that time of year.
“I don’t see any point in going for the Ryanair when the Aintree race suits him well.” So, overall, was this a satisfying Saturday for the 59-year-old?
“Well, the first one won here. The one at Uttoxeter won and the other two here ran OK. Clan was just a bit… Clan. He came back and would not have blown a candle out.
“Hitman ran really well. He just wants a little bit further. If that had been really slow ground, that would probably have helped him.
“But everything today has run really a good race. I don’t take any notice of what people say.
“Some of the stuff I’ve read this week has made me laugh, I used to worry about it but not any more – I just smile.
“I just keep winning races. The pressure is on you, but you always have to keep faith in what you do.
“Clan and Hitman have not got beat because anything wasn’t right, they just were not good enough on the day. It is as simple as that.
“You do put pressure on yourself, but I don’t do it as much as I used to.” Given the huge strength of the Irish horses at Cheltenham, Nicholls admitted he is happy to keep his powder dry if he feels that is best.
“You learn as you get more experience with the job,” he said.
“It is like a football team – you are not going to change a team in a year – it will take three or four years.
“I’m not just going to waste bullets just to try to beat the Irish. If I think they are not good enough, I am going to go elsewhere with them and be a bit more selective and run in race we can win. You have to be a bit realistic about it, that’s all.
“It will be hard to beat a lot of those horses, won’t it?”
It was not so much a Super Saturday, more a Satisfied Saturday for Nicholls.
But at least he was smiling. The alarm bells have fallen silent.