Paul Nicholls hopes Frodon can continue his remarkable journey by writing his name into Cheltenham Festival folklore and provide his owner Paul Vogt with a poignant success in the WellChild Gold Cup at The Festival whioch begins at Cheltenham on March 16th.
The ultra-tough nine year old will attempt to give the 11-times champion trainer a record equalling fifth win (alongside Arkle’s trainer Tom Dreaper) in the prestigious Grade One prize on March 19th and his first since the mighty Kauto Star claimed the second of his two victories in the race in 2009.
Having carried top weight to glory in a handicap chase at Cheltenham on his return to action in October, Frodon failed to fire in the Grade Two Many Clouds Chase at Aintree, before bouncing back in spectacular fashion to claim the Grade One Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.
Frodon, who landed the 2019 Ryanair Chase at The Festival™ supporting WellChild, will have to take another step forward if he is to win Jump racing’s Blue Riband race and record a seventh course success, but Nicholls claims he would not be surprised if he was up to the challenge.
He said: “We’ve been very lucky to win it four times with Kauto Star, Denman and See More Business. It’s been a fantastic race and I’d love to win it again.
“I know his owner Paul, who sadly lost his wife Ruth recently, is really proud. It would be a massive boost if he ran well. He would be a mighty proud man just to have runner in the Gold Cup.
“He has been in racing a long, long time and to just have a chance in the Gold Cup will mean an awful lot to him and his family.
“He is the sort of horse that no one will expect to win the Gold Cup but if he did it wouldn’t be a surprise. No one expected him to win a King George, but he keeps surprising people.
“He was always a decent horse but I never envisaged him being quite to this level. His first couple of years he ran some good races and he won the Victor Ludorum over hurdles. He flattened off but then he found some extra form and strength.
“He just took a while to mature, that was the thing. When he got to full maturity he kept on improving. He has come a long way. He has surprised me to be honest with you.”
Victory for Frodon, who took part in a racecourse gallop at Wincanton today, would also see his regular rider Bryony Frost become the first female jockey in history to win the race, and Nicholls admits that her presence is paramount to the gelding’s chances of glory.
He said: “They are a match made in heaven and they do get on particularly well. She and Frodon have gone a long way and there is definitely a rapport between them. You wouldn’t want her not being on him. She knows him well.
“She was saying this morning how much of a turn of foot he has got. It’s the biggest race he will ever run in his life and he deserves to be there.”
Frodon may be among this season’s leading Gold Cup contenders, but it wasn’t until the current campaign that Nicholls was ppersuaded to go down such a route.
He said: “We ran him in last year’s Ryanair and he was completely outpaced all the way. We decided this year we would stay over a longer trip.
“We were debating a couple of years ago (going for the Gold Cup). When he won the Cotswold Chase (2019) that gave me the idea one day he could run in it.
“Paul (Vogt) has always wanted to have a runner in the Gold Cup which hopefully he is going to have this year. He is going to be a bit more of a livelier runner than we thought.
“At the start of the season he won that handicap at Cheltenham off top weight. That was a huge run and huge effort and I thought this is the season to do it (go for the Gold Cup). He is right up there with the best.
“He loves the track and we are hopeful of a good run. He is always underestimated. He always gives a good account of himself and you can never rule him in or out.”
Though Frodon has adopted front-running tactics for the majority of his victories Nicholls feels that he does not have to force the pace to be effective.
He said: “It suits him to make the running but he doesn’t have to make the running. When he has won some of those good handicaps at Cheltenham earlier on, especially over a shorter trip he got better the quicker they went - he got a bit of a lead and that suited him. He jumps his way into the race. You can ride him how you find him.
“If the ground is better some of those horses that are a little bit more one-paced struggle a little bit. This horse has got plenty of boot and he can dictate things a bit. The ground helps him tactically. He doesn’t have to make the running but he loves being forwards anyway.”
Assessing the opposition, Nicholls expects the toughest challenge to come from the Willie Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo, who is seeking to join the likes of Best Mate and Arkle by claiming a hat-trick of victories in the race.
He added: “Al Boum Photo is the horse to beat, without a shadow of a doubt as he is the class act. After that it is much of a muchness. A lot of the horses have beaten each other. We beat Santini in the King George and he is a shorter price than us in the Gold Cup which is something I don’t quite get.
“Frodon is always underestimated a little bit but believe me he will give a good account of himself. We are glad to be in there and proud the horse has got to this point. We are really looking forward to him running.”
Nicholls believes Bravemansgame has a “leading chance” in the Grade One Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, as he bids to begin Day Two of The Festival™ supporting WellChild with a bang.
The six year old is a general 4-1 third favourite for the race behind Gaillard Du Mesnil and Bob Olinger having won three of his four starts over hurdles so far, and produced his best effort yet to win the Grade One Challow Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury in December.
The Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle is a Festival race which has eluded Nicholls thus far, his best effort being when finishing second with the great Denman back in 2006. But he is hopeful that in Bravemansgame he has a real chance of getting his name on the roll of honour this year.
Nicholls said: “He’s always been really progressive right from the start of the season when he was beaten a neck by Soaring Glory, who won the Betfair Hurdle last weekend.
“I was impressed that day by the fact that Harry (Cobden) could hardly pull him up afterwards, and my God did he improve. Each run he’s got better and better and that culminated in him winning the Challow Hurdle at Christmas.
“He was really strong at the back of the last that day and stayed on strongly, so this is the obvious race for him. He worked nicely this morning and I’m very happy with him and his preparation.
“It’s a hard race to win. Years ago Denman was beaten in the race, so it’s a tough race to win and there’s some tough horses in it, but we think he’s got a great chance and he’s a lovely horse for the future. I think the best will come from when he jumps a fence, but he’s going into the race with a leading chance.”
Nicholls has a strong squad for the Wednesday of the meeting and will also saddle Politologue, who will defend his crown in the feature race, the Grade One Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
The 10 year old is due to have his sixth Festival start this year and after winning the Grade One Betfair Tingle Creek in fine style at Sandown Park in December, he followed that up by finishing second in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January.
Politologue is currently available at a double figure price for the Champion Chase behind the odds-on favourite Chacun Pour Soi, but Nicholls feels his admirable grey can certainly give his supporters a run for their money.
He said: “I love this race. It’s a fantastic race and I’ve been very lucky to have some fantastic horses win it. Politologue winning last year was fantastic for him and for everybody connected with the horse and this year is his sixth Festival, which is amazing.
“If you could see him gallop this morning, he was very impressive. He comes good at this time of year and he’s in there with a chance.
“I think it was a good run (at Ascot). The ground was probably testing enough for him that day. He’s slightly better on spring ground and it might be that Cheltenham just suits him very well. He’s a horse who gives his all, there were no excuses and he was beaten by a better horse on the day (in First Flow). He still ran to a very high level, which he will do in this race, and you know he’s solid, he’ll go a nice gallop and will give you a nice run for your money.
“Obviously Willie’s horse (Chacun Pour Soi) looks very smart, but he’s not run at Cheltenham before and he’s got to act on the track. I don’t doubt that if he does do that he’ll be hard to beat, but you should never be afraid of one horse and we’re going into it with a nice chance, but it’ll be hard.”
Nicholls could saddle both Greaneteen and Duc Des Genievres in the race too.
He added: “Greaneteen is going to run as well. He ran a bit free in the Game Spirit at Newbury and carried a penalty, but was just a bit free and a bit fresh. He’s a horse that if they go fast around there could run into a place. I’m not expecting him to win but he deserves to take his place.
“Duc Des Genievres won the Arkle two years ago and has run some tidy races this year. I feel he’s just shy of a Grade One horse and we have to decide if he runs in this or runs in the Grand Annual, but he seems to be coming together now and he would probably want some slightly better ground.
“Whatever happens, Harry Cobden rides Politologue and Bryony Frost will ride Greaneteen.”
The 11-times champion trainer is the third most successful handler in Cheltenham Festival history with 46 winners, behind only Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson. Here he assesses his other Festival runners:
Day One – Tuesday 16th March
Soldier Of Love (Ultima Handicap Chase)
“Soldier of Love is in the Ultima and the National Hunt Chase. He worked this morning and the key to him is good ground. I’ve been talking to Simon (Claisse) just now and he says that the ground is good to soft just now which is where he wants it to be.
“There is rain forecast next week, and it won’t take too much to go back to being soft, so if it’s soft he’s unlikely to run. He’s a horse who’s more likely to take his chance in the spring on better ground, but we just thought it was prudent to enter him in case we had a dry spring and he’s 50-50 to run in either race.”
Eglantine Du Seuil (Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle/Coral Cup)
“She’s in the Mares’ Hurdle and she’s also in the Coral Cup, which is probably a race which might be a little more suitable for her. She was a bit disappointing the last time she ran, and it’s just been hard to get her right. She’s run a good couple of good solid races and I think she wants good ground to get the best out of her. If it was soft I’d be thinking again about running her, so she’s one we’ve got to make a decision on next week. If we did run, I’d say it’s more likely to be in the Coral Cup.”
Hell Red and Houx Gris (Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle)
“Hell Red won very nicely at Chepstow at the start of the season and looked very promising on decent ground and then he went to Cheltenham on softer ground and after a mile he was choking. He had a breathing problem so he had a breathing operation and I had to get a run into him somewhere, so he went to Wincanton two weeks ago on very heavy ground. He ran ok, he needed the run, and when I saw he was 3-1 on in the morning I thought ‘I can’t believe this’ because I said in my Betfair column that he’d probably need the run. He ran really tidily, and he got dropped 3lbs for that which was a bonus actually. He was 134 and is now 131 and he’s done a lot of graft since and still has got a lot of hard work. If the ground was good to soft that would be perfect for him and he’s definitely there with a chance, he’ll improve a lot on Wincanton.
“Houx Gris was third in a Grade One (on his yard debut at Chepstow in January) and ran very well in very heavy ground. He won at Auteuil the time before that and although Auteuil was given as heavy ground that day – which they always do – it wasn’t that bad. He ran really nicely (at Chepstow) and I probably ran him a bit too quick after we bought him. He ran nicely, and this was obviously a nice race for him off 128. He galloped nicely this morning, and I’d say he’s got a nice chance, he’s a lovely horse.”
Next Destination (National Hunt Chase and Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase)
“We’ll talk about the National Hunt Challenge Cup. He’s also in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase, which is a race we really want to run him in and if it’s soft we’ll run him in that. But we just put him in this race because he obviously stays very strongly. He’s a novice, obviously another plus is that Harry (Cobden) can ride him now, and we’ll probably confirm him at the five-day stage for both races, and make a plan. It’s almost certain that if it’s soft he’ll run in the Brown Advisory, but this is an option.”
Day Two – Wednesday 17th March
Bravemansgame (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle)
“The Challow was a nice race to win at Grade One level and he won very nicely that day. He’s always been really progressive, right from the start of the season when he was beaten a neck by Soaring Glory, who won the Betfair Hurdle last weekend. I was impressed that day by the fact that Harry (Cobden) could hardly pull him up afterwards, and he ran green and jumped green and my God did he improve. Each run he’s got better and better and that culminated in him winning the Challow Hurdle at Christmas. He was really strong at the back of the last and stayed on strong, so this is the obvious race for him. He worked nicely this morning and I’m very happy with him and his preparation.
“He’s a very relaxed horse, he’s not keen. At Newbury we just kept it simple because we knew he jumped and stayed, but a good strong pace suited him well. He’s a good ride and a class horse. It’s a hard race to win, years ago Denman was beaten in the race, so it’s a tough race to win and there’s some tough horses in it, but we think he’s got a great chance and he’s a lovely horse for the future.
“He’s definitely improving physically all the time. I think the best will come from when he jumps a fence in the future, but he’s going into the race with a leading chance I feel.”
Next Destination (Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase)
“He’s a horse who had the best part of two and a half years off when he joined us and he ran very well over hurdles at Wetherby. He’s had two chase runs, both in Grade Two races and won his debut over fences in a Grade Two at Newbury and jumped great. Then he won at Warwick the other day, which was a bit sharp for him but he stayed on strong. He’s got bundles of stamina and the softer the ground the better for him. He’s a very smart horse, and obviously Willie’s Monkfish is going to be very hard to beat on all known form, but you never worry about one or two in novice races at Cheltenham, a lot can happen and you’ve got to jump well. He’s got it all to do, but he’s in there with a right chance, especially if the ground is soft.”
On his seven entered for the Coral Cup
“I might just run Saint Sonnet. He’s been a little disappointing over fences and hasn’t jumped his fences as well as we’d have liked. He probably got stuck in really soft ground and he worked great this morning. He’s rated 143 I think over hurdles, and he’s a classy horse, so that might just be his race. Some of the others might not get in and with Eglantine Du Seuil we’ll be going for this or the Mares’ race if we run her at all.”
Politologue, Greaneteen and Duc Des Genievres (Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase)
“I love this race, it’s a fantastic race and I’ve been very lucky to have some fantastic horses win it. Politologue winning last year was fantastic for him and for everybody connected with the horse and this year is his sixth Festival, which is amazing. If you could see him gallop this morning, he was very impressive, he comes good at this time of year and he’s in there with a chance.
“I think it was a good run (at Ascot). The ground was probably testing enough for him that day, he’s slightly better on spring ground and it might be that Cheltenham just suits him very well. He’s a horse who gives his all, there were no excuses and he was beaten by a better horse on the day. He still ran to a very high level, which he will do in this race, and you know he’s solid, he’ll go a nice gallop and will give you a nice run for your money.
“Obviously Willie’s horse (Chacun Pour Soi) looks very smart, but he’s not run at Cheltenham before and he’s got to act on the track. I don’t doubt that if he does do he’ll be hard to beat, but you should never be afraid of one and we’re going into it – being realistic – with a nice chance, but it’ll be hard.
“Whatever happens, Harry Cobden rides Politologue and Bryony Frost will ride Greaneteen. Greaneteen is going to run as well. He ran a bit free in the Game Spirit at Newbury and carried a penalty, but was just a bit free and a bit fresh. He’s a horse that if they go fast around there could run into a place. I’m not expecting him to win but he deserves to take his place.”
“Duc Des Genievres – Duc as we call him – won the Arkle two years ago and has run some tidy races this year. I feel he’s just shy of a Grade One horse and we have to decide if he runs in this or runs in the Grand Annual, but he seems to be coming together now and he would probably want some slightly better ground.”
On his Grand Annual entries
“I need to see the weights and make a plan for some of the others and see what the ground is, but Ashutor was always intended for this race after his run at Fontwell at the weekend. He’s been off all winter and ran well on the weekend over 2m 3f. He needed the run a fraction and the idea was that the run would bring him on. He has to improve quite a lot, but he’s a good solid jumper and likes a fast run race, and novices have got a good record in this race so being a handicap he’s in there with a chance. He probably has to improve, but he will definitely come on for Sunday’s run.”
Gold Bullion, Rainyday Woman and Shearer (Weatherbys Champion Bumper)
“Gold Bullion is a very nice horse. This might come a bit too soon for him after he won at Warwick, and he may go for another race.”
“Rainyday Woman is a very smart filly who won a listed race at Huntingdon the other day. She’s two from two this year and she’s intended to go to Sandown next weekend, where there’s a very good mares’ race, but I thought I better have her in this in case something goes wrong or the ground is too quick at Sandown.
“Shearer is an intended runner. He’s a very nice horse and just got beat on his debut at Hereford and then he won well at Warwick on ground that was far too testing for him. He’s had a nice break, has improved and definitely deserves to take his chance. I think he was named after Alan Shearer. Alan is well aware of the horse’s name and has followed him. Max (McNeill) who owns him wanted to call him Shearer.”
Day Three - Thursday March 18th
Hitman and Stratagem (Marsh Novices’ Chase)
“I think for Stratagem this will probably come a bit too soon for him. He’s going to go for a valuable novices’ handicap at Sandown on the Saturday before Cheltenham.
“Hitman is an interesting one. I wanted to run him last Saturday at Kempton but couldn’t because of the ground. He’s also entered at Newbury this weekend and again the ground is an issue. In the back of my mind is the fact that in a perfect world I’d probably run him at the weekend and then go to Aintree for the two and a half mile novices’ chase there, but if I miss this weekend for whatever reason, I could be tempted to have a look at this. I think it could cut up a bit with Envoi Allen and people might dodge him – so Hitman is still a possible in my mind, depending on whether we go on Saturday or not.”
Southfield Harvest and Storm Arising (Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle)
“He’s (Southfield Harvest) a real strong stayer and he ran well at Newbury the other day. I was a bit disappointed he went up 3lbs for being beaten, which I thought was a bit harsh, but Cheltenham will suit him – preferably a good gallop, and the slower ground the better for him.
“Storm Arising just keeps on improving. He won at Lingfield and then he sort of pulled himself up a little bit when second at Sandown and then he won very well at Chepstow the other day. He likes soft ground, we’ve kept him fresh and Bryony (Frost) will ride him, while Harry (Cobden) will ride Southfield Harvest. Both have chances in a very competitive race.”
Real Steel (Ryanair Chase)
“He ran very well in last year’s Gold Cup. Obviously they didn’t go a great gallop and he travelled into it and looked like he might win going to the last, but didn’t stay up the hill. He’s not a stayer, and I think this trip is right for him.
“He worked beautifully this morning when we took him away (to Wincanton), which was a really good sign and he looks good in his coat at the moment. He ran in the King George at Christmas and if you watch the race he jumped the last down the back going really well and travelled into the straight looking like he was going to be involved and then stopped. It transpired that he bled, which has been a bit frustrating, but we’ve got him over that and he looks good. We’ve changed our routine with him, and we’ve got him right he would go into the race with a chance.
“Those horses who have come from Willie have been hard to get used to our routine. Obviously what they do is completely different to what we do and it’s taken some of them a little while to settle into our routine, but they’re getting there now and he definitely looked the best he has done in this morning’s gallop, and I was very pleased with him – so hopefully he’ll put up a good show.
“He ran well in the Gold Cup last year and with better ground on the right trip, he could run well.”
Magic Saint (Paddy Power Plate)
“Saint Sonnet is going to go over hurdles. My Way won’t get in the race and Doctor Sanderson is probably the same so I’d imagine that if we were going to run anything it would be Magic Saint. He looks as though he’s crying out for a trip. He ran in the Game Spirit the other day and was a bit one paced over the last, so he probably wants a longer trip, so if I did run one it would probably be him.”
Shantou Flyer (Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase (Sponsored by JRL Group))
“Shantou Flyer is a nice old horse. He was going to run in some hunter chases with David Maxwell, but because of what’s happened with Covid we’ve qualified him for the Kim Muir. He’ll be ridden by either Harry Cobden or Angus Cheleda, who rode him the last day.
“I was a bit disappointed to be honest with the handicapper – I spoke to him about it last week. He’s 11 years old, he’s run twice for this yard off 136 and got beat both times with a claimer riding him, and the last time he ran he got put up 5lbs. I actually said, ‘I thought that was unrealistic as you’ve got to give horses a chance – he’s 11, why did you put him up 5lbs when he can’t win off 136?’ He said he’d have a look at it and has dropped him one pound. To be honest with you that’s taking the mick and I was a bit disappointed with that. If he can’t win off 136 he can’t win off 140, so he has it all to do off that mark.”
Fourth Day – Friday 19th March
Thyme White (McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle)
“Thyme White is an intended runner in this. He ran a really tidy race in the Betfair the other day and coming to the last he looked dangerous. He hadn’t run for a long time and he obviously needed the run but he has obviously sharpened up a lot for that.
“If it was a nice dry week and it was goodish ground on the last day that would suit him well. He could run well. The key to him, like when he won at Musselburgh last year, is that he loves good ground. My view was always to get a run into him at Newbury, run him in this if the ground was okay, if it was soft we might think twice about it. He will definitely be heading up to Ayr for the Scottish Champion Hurdle. That would be a good race for him.
“Christopher Wood is in at Kelso, Lucky One is in at Kelso, Pic D’Orhy could run in the Imperial Cup, Solo is in at Kelso, but Thyme White would be the main one.”
Barbados Buck’s, Threeunderthrufive (Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle)
“Andy (Stewart) has got some good young horses for the future and Barbados Buck’s is one of them. He has been really progressive this season. He is rated 143 now and his form keeps getting better. He has won his last three. The last day at Kempton he carried a 10lb penalty and he was strong from the back of the last and he won nicely. He is a proper staying horse and you need something here that will stay forever and he would be right in that. He worked nicely this morning. He is so laid back he will be absolutely fine (with the step up in class). We’ve progressed all along the lines with him.
“He beat the horse that day (at Musselburgh) that Barbados Buck’s beat at Southwell (Fantastikas) which won at Fontwell on Sunday. They have got quite good form with him. He is unbeaten over hurdles but you wouldn’t know what is in the locker with him as he only just does enough. He goes along with his ears pricked, jumps well and he will definitely get every bit of the trip and is another with a nice chance. This is a nice horse.”
Bob And Co (St James’s Place Festival Hunters Chase)
“He would have a good chance on his day. It’s a race we have won quite a few times. The sad thing is David Maxwell (owner) bought him to ride himself in the race. He had a few issues with his wind last season but we sorted that out. He won very impressively at Haydock the other day and it is just a shame David has got such a fantastic chance in the race and he can’t ride it. He has been sporting and said ‘get on and run him’ but he will get back on him the first time amateurs can ride again. David puts a lot into the sport and he has got some lovely horses to ride and it is a shame he won’t be able to ride him in this race. I think Bob And Co has a great chance.”
Cut The Mustard (Mrs Paddy Power Mares Chase)
“She has been waiting for some better ground. It might well be her and Eglantine Du Seuil might just want to wait for better ground. We might just wait for the April meeting with them. You have got to be in there as you can’t win it if you are not in it. We will just wait and see if it is the right thing or not to run.”
Amour De Nuit, Ecco (Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle)
“Amour De Nuit would definitely get in. He has been running really nicely this season. Ecco who ran very well the other day at Kempton would get in but he is very ground dependant and he likes good ground. Saint Sonnet and Solo are also in there. There are three or four in there. The handicaps are hard to work out at the moment. You need to see what the ground is like and what weight they are. It is nice to have a couple to select that you could hope would be competitive.”