Season of change means backing Paul Nicholls for title is foolish

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With Cheltenham’s Showcase meeting less than a month away, National Hunt fans up and down the country will be purring with excitement at the prospect of a bumper season. Although this time round don’t expect Paul Nicholls to have it all his own way out in front.

Last season the Ditcheat trainer continued on the tradition of claiming the Trainers’ Championship crown, taking his total to eight wins in the last nine years.

Nicholls is priced up at Evens to retain his title this time round, but it makes no sense backing such an outcome at this stage.

Instead, a standout top price of 11/10 on Henderson to claim a second title in three years with Ladbrokes looks an outstanding bet, here’s why.

It is set to be a season of transition at Ditcheat, with stalwarts Big Buck’s, Tidal Bay and Celestial Halo all retired, and new retained rider Sam Twiston-Davies set to begin his first full season as stable jockey.

Now, the potential is there for the youngster to be top class, but not just yet.

His raw talent needs time to be channelled in the right ways if he is to compete with the likes of Barry Geraghty, Ruby Walsh and AP McCoy.

Nicholls’ stables, like his staff, are laden with potential, but that is all it is.

A career novice chasing awaits the intriguing Saphir Du Rheu, while Rocky Creek and Al Ferof are yet to prove they are top class. Only Silviniaco Conti has proven that he can deliver at the very top level consistently.

The man himself has stated that “It is now all about the future. I am not starting this season aiming to win the champion [sic].”

Instead preference should be shown to Nicky Henderson, who had a tricky campaign last season with injuries and ailments striking both Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig.

The former, unbeaten over fences before his well-document heart complaint, would more than likely have gone on to finish in the first two in the Champion Chase, Melling Chase as well as the Irish Champion Chase, had all gone to plan, likely racking up between £150,000 and £420,000 in prize money.

Simonsig remains three from three over fences, winning those starts by a combined 86 lengths, and if retaining his ability will surely do enough to help the Lambourn handler close last season’s £400,000 gap to Nicholls.

But one man could be lurking at a very nice price of 5/1 to upset the big two.

It was a season and a half for Jonjo O’Neill, over £1.5m in prize money, three Grade 1 winners, as well as taking the Irish Grand National.

The ball could continue to roll at Jackdaw’s Castle in the coming months as well if the bookies are to be believed.

O’Neill currently trains joint-favourites in the World Hurdle (More of That – 2/1), Gold Cup (Holywell – 8/1), Grand National (Shutthefrontdoor – 25/1), as well as the general second favourite in the Ryannair Chase (Taquin Du Seuil) – not a bad position to be in.

And with over £500,000 going to the winner of the Aintree showpiece, it could decide which way the top trainer accolade heads this season.

All odds and markets correct as of the date of publishing

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Ben Stones

Ladbrokes News’ equine expert, Ben likes nothing more than studying the form to pick out a winner or two for our readers. A Journalism and Media Studies graduate from the University of Winchester, Ben has previously written for a number of football and racing blogs and websites, as well as contributing to the sports pages of his home-town newspaper.