Champion Nicholls hails Bullets after his victory at Cheltenham Racecourse
CHAMPION trainer Paul Nicholls has tipped Showcase meeting winner Dodging Bullets as an exciting prospect for the rest of the jumps season.
He expects the youngster to show further improvement after he shot down his rivals for the first win of his four-race career under Ruby Walsh in the Masterson Holdings Hurdle, in which Tom George's leading light Baby Mix faded in the closing stages to finish third.
Even at this early stage of the season, Nicholls believes Dodging Bullets could be good enough to contest the William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival in March and plans to give him more match practice at next month's Open meeting at Prestbury Park.
"I was very pleased with that performance," said Nicholls, who went on to complete a double with the Walsh-ridden Southfield Theatre in the Guy Knights Memorial Bumper.
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"He'll be running in the top novice hurdles this season.
"He's not the easiest horse to train because he can be very keen, so we train him on his own to get him to switch off.
"He had a breathing operation over the summer – he struggled with it last season – and hasn't been in for as long as some of the others, so I expect him to improve for the run.
"It was only his fourth race and he'll be better for the experience.
"I think there's a lot more to come and he could be a really nice novice."
Nicholls' main title rival Nicky Henderson is eyeing a crack at the Paddy Power Gold Cup with the "funny old bat" Nadiya De La Vega after her victory in the BetVictor.com Handicap Chase.
The mare put a disappointing run behind her at Chepstow in December to score by two-and-a-half lengths under a typically strong ride from champion jockey AP McCoy, who went on to complete a double aboard Bondage.
Henderson said he will now give the Paddy Power Gold Cup, which he has won with Fondmort in 2003, serious consideration.
"She dropped AP going out – I only found out after the race," he said.
"She can be a funny old bat, but she's been working very sharply since she came back.
"The Paddy Power Gold Cup will have to come into it now."
Trainer Philip Hobbs plans to run Balthazar King, winner of the Ryman The Stationer Handicap Chase for the second year in a row, in the cross-country chase at the Open meeting.
The front-running gelding surprised Hobbs on Saturday by regaining the lead from Jonjo O'Neill's Galaxy Rock after jumping the last fence to win by a length under Richard Johnson.
"He's massively brave and so tough it's untrue," he said.
"When they've made the running and then they're headed you never really think they'll come back – it's absolutely phenomenal.
"He's been working as well as ever but he'd need to be because he's running off a career-high mark now."
Fears the handicapper had caught up with Bondage were proved wide of the mark after Gordon Elliott's raider from Ireland responded well to McCoy's whip to land the Marie Curie Cancer Care Handicap Hurdle.
"He's a great little horse," said Elliott.
"He's won a few on the Flat and now that's two over hurdles, and he's owned by a great bunch of lads.
"I thought the handicapper might have given him too much weight, but the horse is getting more professional and he's travelling better in his races over hurdles."
Trainer David Pipe joked how His Excellency's swirling tail had helped power him to victory under Tom Scudamore in the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars Novices' Chase.
The gelding didn't look entirely happy about over-exerting himself as he came through with a powerful burst to collar Third Intention near the finish.
Pipe said: "He's a bit quirky but he's got talent.
"I thought he might get third, then second and I think his tail going round and round propelled him to the front in the end!"
â Retired jockey Mark Caswell rolled back the years to win the Greatwood Charity race aboard Sky Calling, trained by Martin Keighley, on Saturday.
The 53-year-old's last ride as a professional was a winning one at Cheltenham 25 years ago.
Caswell, from Cheltenham, gave Sky Calling a confident ride to lead near the finish.
"It feels like it was only yesterday that I was riding around here and that I've haven't stopped – it's brilliant," he said.
"Thank you to everyone who has supported me, especially Martin, Sky Calling's owners and my partner Jane."