Paul Nicholls is confident Clan Des Obeaux is “back to his best” as he prepares for an intriguing clash with Champ in the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury.
Winner of Saturday’s Grade 2 contest two seasons ago, when it was run at Ascot, Clan Des Obeaux was last seen finishing third behind popular stable companion Frodon – in search of a third victory in the King George VI Chase at Kempton.
The nine-year-old faces a new rival this weekend in the form of Nicky Henderson’s Champ, who has been off the track since his thrilling last-gasp victory in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham last March.
But Nicholls is in bullish mood.
Speaking on a call hosted by Great British Racing, he said: “It’s quite an encounter and a great-looking race.
“Champ won the RSA Chase last year. Where he is at the top of the market is a bit more on reputation than what he’s achieved at the moment – he’s going to go up against these Grade 1 warriors like Clan Des Obeaux, who has won King Georges.
“It’s a step up for Champ. He’s a talented horse, and it will be interesting on Saturday to see how he does go.”
The Ditcheat handler believes there are multiple reasons why Clan Des Obeaux came up short in his bid for a King George hat-trick – and expects to see an improved performance this weekend.
He added: “It didn’t quite happen in the King George. He got further behind than we really wanted and if we were to run the race again he’d have sat closer to Frodon.
“He got a little bit behind and made a mistake at the first fence down the back the second time, and was then on the back foot. I think he did very well to finish as close as he did, but it was just one of those races that didn’t work out.
“He did have a hard race in the Betfair Chase at Haydock as well, probably a harder race than we really wanted, to be honest.
“He seems very fresh and well again now. Harry (Cobden) schooled him this (Tuesday) morning, and I’d say he’s right back to his best, so we’re looking forward to it.”
With Clan Des Obeaux failing to run up to expectations in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the past two seasons, Nicholls resisted the temptation to even enter him this time around.
He said: “He’s not entered at Cheltenham. He doesn’t like it there, and a flat track suits him better.
“Aintree (Betway Bowl) will be ideal – and if things have changed (with travel restrictions) then we’ll have a look at Punchestown.
“There is only one race to run him in between Newbury and Aintree, and that’s at Kelso – so you never know, he might end up there.
“If we go to Aintree this year he’ll be going there fresh, which will make a massive difference.”
Nicholls confirmed Clan Des Obeaux will be joined this weekend by stablemate Secret Investor, who is likely to be ridden by Bryony Frost.
Champ’s return to action has been delayed by a wind operation in the autumn, with Henderson eventually admitting defeat in a race against time to get him ready for the Savills Chase at Leopardstown in December.
With stable companion Santini contesting the rearranged Cotswold Chase at Sandown last Saturday, Henderson views the Newbury race as the perfect slot for the JP McManus-owned Champ to warm up for a Gold Cup bid.
“We’ve been very happy the last two to three weeks,” said the Seven Barrows handler.
“When we started the season it just appeared that he was making a bit of a noise, and consequently he had to stop and actually had to be hobdayed, so it was significant.
“I just wonder if it goes back to last year, particularly the second-last in the RSA when he seemed to lose his pitch completely. He came to the last destined for no better than third, and all of a sudden picked up and flew.
“We were doing a lot of schooling with him in the autumn, which was when we picked it up.
“He doesn’t do brilliant bits of work at home, always satisfactory. But the twice we’ve taken him away to a racecourse (this season), as soon as he set foot on the ground, he picked up the bridle to the point of being keen – which is totally unlike him at home.
“He worked once over two miles and once over three, and they’ve put him spot on. The aim was to ensure it wasn’t like he was having his first run of the season this weekend.”
Henderson has won the Gold Cup twice before, with Long Run in 2011 and Bobs Worth two years later, and retains hope that Champ has what it takes to land the blue riband next month.
He added: “You can dream. Anyone can dream, as long as it is not woefully optimistic.
“We’ve been second a couple of times recently with Might Bite and Santini, and it’s not that long since Long Run and Bobs Worth, but it took us a bit of time to find a Gold Cup horse initially.
“Since then we’ve had some good staying chasers, and I’m hoping Champ’s life is still in front of him.”