Paul Nicholls holds an extremely strong hand with Greaneteen and Hitman in Tuesday’s Betway Haldon Gold Cup.
Nicholls has used Tuesday’s Grade Two handicap at Exeter as a starting point for plenty of his good two-mile chasers down the years, with none other than Kauto Star – who was beaten into second by Monkerhostin in 2005 – among a host of quality horses to have run in the race.
Greaneteen was successful 12 months ago – but since he went on to go close in the Champion Chase and then beat Altior at Sandown, he is now 17lb higher in the weights. The Tingle Creek is his big early aim at the start of December.
“Greaneteen won the race last year, and we’d planned that for a little while,” said Nicholls.
“He progressed really well throughout the season – he was only beaten a couple of lengths in the Champion Chase and then won the Grade One at Sandown at the end of the season, beating Altior.
“He’s now rated 168 – which is a bit different from this time last year. He’s in good shape.
“I’ve always used this race as a bit of a stepping stone to the Tingle Creek with the better horses. Politologue and Kauto Star ran in this before going on to Sandown. There’s nothing much else for them before the Tingle Creek.
“He always needs a run for him to compete at the very highest level. He’s always a bit fresh and keen first time, so he needs a run (to knock that out of him), and this is the perfect race.”
Nicholls has never been afraid of running his Grade One winners in handicaps, and thinks it is valid route.
“I don’t know why others don’t run Grade One winners in handicaps – but with him, there aren’t many options for a run before the Tingle Creek,” he added.
“Cheltenham (Shloer Chase) is close enough, and this is great timing to the Tingle Creek.
“To run in a Tingle Creek you’ve got to be bang on it. Frodon showed we can get horses to win Grade Ones first time out. But this lad is different – he needs a run to take the freshness out of him.
“It’s a limited handicap, so he’s nicely in – and at the end of the day, he’s not going for a day out. He’ll run well, but it’s a huge test at the weights.”
Nicholls has made no secret of the regard in which he holds Hitman, who maybe did not quite reach the expected heights last season and has since had a breathing operation.
“It wasn’t anything major – we thought his palate just needed sorting. It wasn’t a big problem – it was why he ran in a tongue tie last year,” said Nicholls.
“He’s got the right profile as a second-season novice and he’s getting 17lb off Greaneteen, so it’s a nice starting point for him as well.
“He’s fit and well, and I hope he’ll run very well. It’s a slightly shorter trip than he was running over last season – but he’s not short of speed, (and) it’s nearly two and a quarter miles.
“You could argue the last day at Aintree two and a half miles was just far enough for him. But he’s a stronger horse now, and the trip should be fine.”
While Hitman holds an entry in this month’s Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham, a good run at Exeter could put him in the Tingle Creek frame.
“At the moment he’s got 17lb to find with the top horse, so he’s got to improve,” said Nicholls.
“He wants to be winning this if he’s going for the Tingle Creek, but this will tell us a lot about where we go afterwards. It will be very informative.
“From the back end of last season, this has been his target, and he’s hopefully ready for the task.
“He’s in the Paddy Power, but it’s an early closer and it’s just an option – it’s never been a target. He could stand on a stone in the morning, and you need other options.
“I feel he’ll be running in the better two-mile races later in the season, but you need a horse that stays well in the good two-mile races. He might want three miles later on, we’ll see.”
Last year’s runner-up Moonlighter, Eldorado Allen, King D’argent and Zanza complete the field.