From the horse's mouth: Paul Nicholls discusses his Cheltenham Festival team
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls is getting a big kick out of bringing on the next wave of talent following the retirements of Kauto Star, Denman and Master Minded.
Losing the high-profile trio, plus a season-ending injury to the brilliant Big Buck's left an almost unfillable void at Manor Farm Stables in Ditcheat, Somerset.
While horses of their talent come along only rarely, the likes of Silviniaco Conti and Zarkandar are fuelling Nicholls' optimism.
"The front yard is totally different to how it used to be, but it's never going to last forever and to have Conti and Zarkandar and lot of nice horses coming through is good," he said.
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"You have to move on in this game and there's no point standing still, and you do get a kick out of finding new talent.
"Obviously in the past we had Big Buck's, Master Minded, Kauto and Denman and it's a different place now.
"Those older horses are always going move on at some stage and you wonder where you're going to go.
"We were really struggling last year, we had them all coughing and ill and you kid yourselves that putting them on antibiotics will put them right, but actually it sets them back and they never really recover after that.
"But this season's been going really well and I'm hoping that next year we'll be even stronger.
"We've got some really nice chances and I'm really looking forward to the Festival.
"No one's quite got a squad like Nicky Henderson or Willie Mullins, who have got awesome teams, but every bullet has got to count when you run at the Festival and we think we've got a great team.
"We probably are underdogs but we've got a lot of chances, but it's so competitive there and all the races take a lot of winning."
Nicholls, who has won 32 Festival races, isn't under quite the same pressure to succeed at this year's Festival.
While Silviniaco Conti and Zarkandar and have good chances in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Stan James Champion Hurdle respectively, they haven't had time to capture the public's imagination in the way as the stable's former champions.
Nicholls said: "I think there is less pressure this year, but we always put ourselves under a lot of pressure to do the job right.
"When you've got Big Buck's, Denman and Kauto Star, there was a huge amount of pressure surrounding it.
"Don't get me wrong, it's a nice place to be but it's quite tough because you have to deal with the pressure of it all.
"We're in a totally different place now."
Nicholls' reputation has been built upon winning championship races at the Festival, notably four in the Gold Cup and the same number in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
As well as the showpiece races, this year Nicholls also has strong chances in handicaps.
"Sam Winner could be nicely off at the weights and some of the others have got chances," he said.
"It's nice to have horses that have got chances in those races, that have hopefully still got plenty in the tank because you're not going to win those handicaps with exposed horses.
"These days everyone has to show their hand to get in those races because there are so many entries.
"Things are a bit different now so the better horses come to the fore, but if you're exposed you're going to struggle.
"You want younger horses that are progressing."
Conti and Zarkandar lead the charge:
Silvinianco Conti and Zarkandar will lead Paul Nicholls' team into battle at the Festival.
The in-form duo hold good chances in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Stan James Champion Hurdle respectively.
Silviniaco Conti is unbeaten in three races this season, warming up for the Gold Cup in the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury last month.
Nicholls believes the gelding's versatility will stand him in good stead in the biggest test of his career to date next Friday.
"He has been around loads of different tracks on different ground," he said.
"I have always thought he wanted good ground but he has coped well with soft ground this season.
"You can ride him any way you like.
"He would be suited by a really fast end-to-end gallop where he can sit in third or fourth and use his jumping and hopefully stay on strongly.
"He has progressed nicely, done everything right and come out of Newbury well.
"Any Gold Cup is hard to win but we think we are going there with a nice chance.
"He is workmanlike and does the job right.
"My view is that the three novices from last season – Bob's Worth, Silviniaco Conti and Sir Des Champs – might be the three for the Gold Cup, but you can never rule out Long Run because he has been such a good horse."
Nicholls is confident Zarkandar will produce a better performance in the Champion Hurdle than he did last year, when he finished fifth to Rock On Ruby.
Unbeaten in three races this term, Zarkandar completed his preparations with a typically workmanlike success at Wincanton last month.
Nicholls said: "He has been totally different to how he was a year ago.
"Last year he had just won the Betfair Hurdle and was coughing.
"He wasn't quite right and we really struggled with him and he was nowhere near himself when he ran in the Champion Hurdle last year, and then he fell at Aintree.
"Otherwise he has won every race he has run in and is the right age now, six.
"He jumps nicely and loves the Cheltenham hill.
"I would like to see the ground on the slow side and a fast-run race. He has got a great chance."
Young guns aim for victory:
Cheltenham winners Far West and Dodging Bullets have every chance of claiming a Cheltenham hat-trick for Paul Nicholls in races for top young hurdlers.
While Far West heads for the JCB Triumph Hurdle, Dodging Bullets is being aimed at the William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
Far West made it four wins in a row, including two at Cheltenham, with victory at Ascot last month.
Nicholls said: "He stays and he jumps and he has a devastating turn of foot as well.
"Ruby (Walsh) was very impressed with him on Ascot.
"He jumps great and has been working with Zarkandar and has improved enormously over the winter.
"He has got everything and is a proper little racehorse."
Dodging Bullets, who was bred by former champion Flat jockey Frankie Dettori, finished fourth in last year's Triumph Hurdle.
He won his first two races of the season at Cheltenham and finished third in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day last time out.
Nicholls said: "I think he is almost the forgotten horse of the Festival.
"We were a little bit ambitious to run him in the Christmas Hurdle.
"I wanted to give him a run over Christmas and have him really fresh for the Festival.
"He came third to Darlan and finished ahead of Countrywide Flame, who was fourth, and that is not bad form.
"He would compare favourably with Al Ferof and Noland who won the Supreme for us.
"He goes well fresh and has not really had his ground which is not worse than good to soft.
"He wants a fast-run race so he can come from behind.
"I think he has a great chance in the Supreme and we have trained him just for that race.
"It looks a hot race this year but always does."
Unioniste will make his first return to Prestbury Park since gaining his most important win to date in the Paul Stewart IronSpine Charity Challenge Gold Cup in December.
Nicholls has several options for the five-year-old and anticipates a bold show in whichever one he runs.
"He is only five, has kept on improving and jumps great," he said.
"He stays jumps, goes well at Cheltenham, and is definitely in with a chance."