Paul Nicholls had a definite period in the doldrums in terms of top-class Cheltenham Festival contenders but it's hard to keep a good man down and he's looking revitalised now.
Nicholls enjoyed a halcyon era in the early 2000s, never more so than when Kauto Star and Denman bagged him three successive Gold Cups, just as Big Buck's was set to dominate the Stayers' Hurdle with four straight wins and Master Minded was landing successive Queen Mother Champion Chases - all of that happening from 2007 onwards.
Big Buck's won his final Stayers' Hurdle in 2012, the same year Rock On Ruby handed Nicholls his only Champion Hurdle win. They remain the most recent of his Championship race wins, but things have been on the up for the 12-time champion trainer lately and he has some top contenders for this year.
We take a look at some of Nicholls' leading contenders for glory at the 'greatest show on turf' from 14th-17th March at Cheltenham.
|What||Cheltenham Festival 2023|
|Where||Cheltenham Festival, Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire|
|When||Tuesday 14th March - Friday 17th March, 2023|
|How to watch||Racing TV, selected races on ITV & bet365 Sports Live Streaming|
Tahmuras - 12/1
The Festival's opening race looks a tall order on paper for most of the field, with the long shadow of 8/11 favourite Facile Vega present for Willie Mullins, but Nicholls has his own Grade 1 winner in the form of Tahmuras.
He won the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown in early January - a contest that went to Supreme winner Constitution Hill last season - and in doing so strengthened his record over hurdles to three wins in three starts.
He's looked good in all those wins, but nowhere more so than at Sandown where he travelled best of all and overcame mistakes late on to go on score, despite giving the impression he was lonely having hit the front sooner than was perhaps ideal.
A fast-paced Supreme at Cheltenham could almost certainly bring more improvement and he's dangerous to dismiss.
Threeunderthrufive - 12/1
Nicholls' staying chaser Threeunderthrufive has been given the Ultima Handicap Chase - a race dominated by British-trained horses - as his Festival target.
He won over the track and trip as a novice last season and ran respectably in Grade 1 company last March in the Brown Advisory won by L'homme Presse.
He unseated at Newbury on his chasing return in November, not getting beyond the first after what was an uncharacteristic mishap, and has since failed to get home in the 3m5f marathon that is Warwick's Classic Chase.
With his course form, plenty will take an interest in Threeunderthrufive in the first of the Festival's major handicaps.
Cheltenham Festival: A look at Willie Mullins' Festival runners
Cheltenham Festival: A look at Henry De Bromhead's Festival runners
Cheltenham Festival: A look at Nicky Henderson's Festival runners
Hermes Allen - 11/4
Quite possibly the best chance of a winner for Team Ditcheat comes in the day two opener where ultra-impressive Challow Novices' Hurdle winner Hermes Allen is the 11/4 ante-post favourite.
Victory at Newbury on New Year's Eve also made it three wins in as many attempts over timber for the gelding that is part-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson.
He won at a canter on debut at Stratford and, pointedly, followed that up with a smooth Grade 2 win over the Ballymore trip at Cheltenham's November meeting.
It was, though, the sheer ease of his Grade 1 win at Newbury that turned heads. He could be called the winner a long way from home and Harry Cobden barely moved a muscle on his back. He has won on good/soft ground already, so whatever comes his way on 15th March he'll be at home.
That winning form around Cheltenham is also crucial and he's very well thought of by the team in Ditcheat.
Bravemansgame - 8/1
When Kauto Star regained the Gold Cup crown in 2009, it completed a treble for his trainer and few would have suggested he'd find himself 14 years later still looking for another Blue Riband success. That is the case however.
Nicholls has won plenty of King Georges in the interim, but none of those Kempton icons have managed to go on and land this prize.
The latest to try will be Bravemansgame, successful in the Boxing Day showpiece and now heading straight for Cheltenham where he'll aim to spoil the St Patrick's Day party for the Irish, who are seeking a fifth straight Gold Cup.
Some will say Cheltenham isn't the track for Bravemansgame. His only run here saw him placed third behind Bob Olinger in the Ballymore at this meeting in 2021. It seems tough to beat him with that crutch though, given he looks so much more imposing as a chaser.
He's suffered one reverse over fences, at Aintree last spring when his trainer felt he'd boiled over after missing Cheltenham at the last minute three weeks before.
He has impressed in his two wins this season, landing the bet365 Charlie Hall at Wetherby en route to Kempton, with Cobden suggesting he was never better than at home before that Christmas Grade 1.
If Britain are going to stop Ireland's run in the Gold Cup, 8/1 Bravemansgame looks the leading candidate to do it.