Bravemansgame has positioned himself as the leading staying chaser in Britain at the end of the 2022/23 National Hunt season and champion trainer Paul Nicholls may still feel his best days are ahead.
The Ditcheat chief had touted Bravemansgame as a 'King George horse' during his novice chasing season and that belief was well held as they took out the Boxing Day showpiece at Kempton before going on to finish second in a thrilling Gold Cup at .
Still just eight-years-old and winner of six from eight starts as a chaser, Nicholls will rightly believe there are more big days ahead with Bravemansgame.
|What||King George VI Chase|
|Where||Kempton Park Racecourse, Sunbury-on-Thames|
|When||2.30, Tuesday 26th December, 2023|
|How to watch||ITV Racing, Racing TV & bet365 Sports Live Streaming|
|Odds||Bravemansgame 5/2, Galopin Des Champs 9/2, Shishkin 5/1, Allaho 7/1, Gerri Colombe 8/1, L'homme Presse 8/1, The Real Whacker 16/1, Jonbon 16/1|
There is one thing that certainly cannot be argued when it comes to the career of one PF Nicholls – he knows just what is needed to win the King George on Boxing Day.
Bravemansgame gave him a record-extending 13th success in the Christmas showpiece in 2022 and it was a plan fulfilled.
A year previous, when Bravemansgame won the Grade 1 novice chase on the same card, Nicholls pinpointed this King George as a long-term target for a horse 'made for the race' and so it was when he won handsomely from Royale Pagaille after closest pursuer L'homme Presse unseated rider at the final fence when seemingly losing the battle anyway.
The King George was run at a good pace and Bravemansgame had to contend with rival L'homme Presse jumping into his path at times on the way around.
It was a good learning curve for him, and a definite step up from his season-opening win in the bet365 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby.
While it cannot conclusively prove he'll stay the three-and-quarter-mile Gold Cup journey around Cheltenham, the manner in which he saw out his three-mile Kempton test off a solid pace was encouraging.
Bravemansgame had won six of his seven starts over fences heading into the Gold Cup. The wins came at Newton Abbot, Haydock, Kempton, Newbury, Wetherby and, of course, Kempton again in that King George.
They are all 'flat' tracks, while his only setback came at Aintree (also flat) after he was a final-hour absentee from the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase at Cheltenham in March 2022 when a deluge of rain led Nicholls to believe conditions had gone against him.
They went to Aintree three weeks later and the trainer conceded after a listless effort on Merseyside that Bravemansgame had probably gone 'over the top' having been ripe for his intended Cheltenham outing and forced to wait those three weeks.
His best hurdles form was on similar tracks, with his one previous encounter with Cheltenham bringing a bronze medal in the 2021 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle won impressively by Bob Olinger.
Nicholls was adamant that Bravemansgame would be at home back in the Cotswolds, as he reflected on the Christmas success of his leading staying chaser.
"We haven't been avoiding undulating tracks, it's just that all the races that were right for him were run on flat tracks," he said.
"I am not worried about it. He can go on any track.
"He used to take his races quite hard but I would say he has hardly lost a kilo after the King George."
Regular pilot Harry Cobden admitted he was 'very, very confident' going to Kempton given how Bravemansgame had been schooling at home in the lead up to the King George.
Pre-Cheltenham, Cobden suggested he found it 'quite funny' how his detractors pick holes in Bravemansgame despite his achievements and, in regards to stamina, points to his very wide trip around Kempton on Boxing Day as being indicative that he will stay three-miles-and-two-furlongs as he covered plenty extra ground that afternoon.
That confidence was well-founded as Bravemansgame ran a Gold Cup blinder in giving favourite Galopin Des Champs a proper race.
The big duo went clear heading to the second last fence and both produced outstanding jumps in the home straight, before Paul Townend's partner exerted control on the level for a seven-length win.
It was a cracking effort from Bravemansgame and one that silenced his doubters to some degree.
The Punchestown Gold Cup was the final stopping point in the 2022/23 season as Nicholls once more demonstrated his willingness to stare down the dominant Irish on their own patch.
It looked as though Cobden had delivered a perfect race when old foe Galopin Des Champs came under plenty pressure in the home straight but, in fact, 20/1 outsider Fastorslow for JJ Slevin and Martin Brassil came by the pair to win as the Gold Cup winner (second) had just a nose in hand over Bravemansgame (third).
It's unlikely to be the last time they meet.
Bravemansgame is 5/2 favourite to repeat his Kempton win at Christmas, while Galopin Des Champs is 2/1 to retain the mantle in Cheltenham next March.
After getting much close to that rival in Punchestown, Bravemansgame can be backed at to become Nicholls' first Gold Cup winner since Kauto Star in 2009 when the biggest race of the season rolls around again on Friday 15th March, 2024.