Nube Negra connections are under no illusions about the task facing last year’s runner-up in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham.
The Dan Skelton-trained eight-year-old was beaten just half a length in the two-mile Championship last season and made a great start to the current campaign with victory at Cheltenham’s Shloer Chase in November.
He disappointed when well-imagined for the Tingle Creek at Sandown the following month, but having been kept fresh ever since, Skelton expects to see the real Nube Negra when he returns to Prestbury Park.
“He’s an exceptional looking horse and his work at home is always very good, which is what you would expect from a two mile horse,” said the Lodge Hill handler.
“He went to Warwick the other day. We didn’t ask him any questions, it was just one day.
“The most important thing with this horse is that he is super fresh. If you take him out of a race in a month, it’s too close.
“He invests so much in his runs and jumps – he just empties the tank.”
It’s a measure of the depth of this year’s Champion Chase that Nube Negra is only fourth best in the market at 10-1, with much of the pre-race attention focused on a rematch between Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin and Willie Mullins -formed Energumene after their blockbuster clash at Ascot.
With Mullins also making positive noises about Everyone For Self, who was only third when he was heavy favorite at Cheltenham 12 months ago, Skelton acknowledges his star has his work cut out for him.
He said: “Shishkin is very good, Energumene is very good and if you listen to Willie, Everyone For Self is better than Energumene, so it’s a hot race.
“That’s before you brought in first-year winners like Greeneteen and others – who would have thought Dispatch Allen would be 20-1 for a first-year this time last year?
“We are very happy with our horse and I can’t do anything for the others.
“You’re hoping for a flawless run to get there, a flawless run when you get there and what will be will be.”
The next afternoon, Skelton is eager to saddle Shan Blue into the Ryanair Chase.
The eight-year-old has been off the track since suffering a heavy crash as he was seemingly on the verge of missing a wide-margin winner of the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in October, but his trainer is quietly confident that to its festival prospects.
“Obviously he would have won Charlie Hall with a clear run, but ‘but’ is a huge word in sports and he didn’t,” Skelton said.
“He hurt his neck in that fall, as you would expect – it was a pretty awful fall.
“We gave him a lot of time and decided to go the freshman route. I know his 148 mark sounds pretty salivating, but he’s a freshman horse and he has to go in the freshman races.
“He looks amazing – I was particularly happy with that horse. He went to Warwick the other day and did really well. We’ve done a lot of jumps with him and I’m very happy with that. that I saw.
“He takes the idea that people have of a banker in Allaho, but if you look beyond it, it looks like the race could be reduced significantly.
“I really like this horse and I think there is a lot of unfinished business.”
Skelton also has a strong hand of hurdlers as he looks to add to his previous four Festival wins.
Doctor Parnassus is seen as a serious player in the JCB Triumph Hurdle, while West Cork – winners of the Greatwood Hurdle earlier in the season – could hand their coach a fourth success at the County Hurdle.
“Doctor Parnassus is built like a tank and is a very strong and experienced horse,” Skelton said.
“When we bought him, I thought he was going to be a milk-and-stir juvenile. I thought it would be a very simple transition into hurdles and it was.
“It wasn’t my surprise because he has the physical and mental attitude to do it.
“He won’t mind getting dirty and I don’t think he even thinks about the floor. He almost has a Forrest Gump attitude – just run!
“I really like West Cork. He obviously won the Greatwood after a very long break and then had a terrible overtaking at Ascot – I’ve never seen such a bad overtaking with a horse.
“Having that overtake and having two weeks on the walker without being able to gallop has almost ensured he can’t race so far.
“I’m not going to take back what I said – I said on my way to Ascot that this horse is a graded horse and I still believe that.
“We still have our eye on the County Hurdle and I think he has as good a chance as we took him there – he won’t be far.”
Skelton also gave positive mentions to Too Friendly, who he said has a “good profile” for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, and Coral Cup contender Unexpected Party.
With greater odds, Skelton is keen on the chances of Nurse Susan in the Parnell Properties Mares ‘Novices’ Hurdle and the Albert Bartlett-linked Ballygrifincottage.
He added: “Unexpected Party won very well at Ascot and he has a rating of 142. Really you need a handicap graded horse to win and I hope he is of that class – I am sure he is a competitor.
“Nurse Susan is a big, imposing mare and I was very impressed with her. I think she has it all.”
Skelton also revealed Arkle’s one-time prospect, Third Time Lucki is “pretty certain” to skip Cheltenham in favor of an appearance at Aintree in April, as is smart mare Elle Est Belle.