Paul Nicholls could yet bypass the Cheltenham Festival altogether with Tidal Bay in order for him to make it to the John Smith’s Grand National in the best possible shape.
The champion trainer finally ended a long quest to win the Aintree showpiece a year ago with Neptune Collonges and he appeared delighted with the lenience shown by handicapper Phil Smith towards top-weight Tidal Bay.
Second in the Hennessy and subsequently the winner of an epic Lexus Chase over Christmas, the once-quirky veteran missed an outing at Cheltenham trials day when some pus was found in a foot.
“Tidal Bay has been in great form and he is due to run off 4lb lower than he did in the Hennessy,” said Nicholls.
“That’s a huge incentive to run and I think the handicapper has given him an outstanding chance. We always knew he’d be on 11st 10lb, it was just the rating itself we wanted to find out.
“I’ve taken him out of the Gold Cup and I don’t want to rush him.
“If he’s ready he can go for the World Hurdle but I don’t want to forego his chance in the National.”
Nicholls has three other interesting contenders and expects each to line up. No decisions have been made on jockeys, with Ruby Walsh juggling commitments with Nicholls, Willie Mullins and possibly his father, Ted.
Nicholls said: “What A Friend (11st 5lb) has the same sort of profile to Neptune Collonges, having been placed in a Gold Cup.
“He’ll go to Kempton in a fortnight and then we’ll get together with Sir Alex (Ferguson, owner). He might miss Cheltenham in order to keep him fresh. Harry The Viking is in good form and he could run at Doncaster next. He’s got a nice weight and could just go there and run tidy.
“Join Together is the one we set our stall out to get ready for the National and he ran a great race in the Becher. He could run at Doncaster next week and is the sort that could run really well.”
Ted Walsh has two of the 31 Irish entries in Seabass (11st 2lb) and Colbert Station (10st 11lb), and he appeared slightly bemused by the weight handed to the former.
Seabass carried 4lb less when third 12 months ago, and Walsh, speaking before seeing the full list, said: “I don’t know how Seabass can get over 11st this year if Tidal Bay is rated 171 and my horse is rated 154.
“Whatever Phil Smith does, he does - it is immaterial to me and I can’t change it. You don’t have to be a great mathematician to subtract 54 from 71.
“There is just over seven weeks to Liverpool so I would like to get a run for him.”
Walsh, who won the National in 2000 with Papillon, said Colbert Station would also be likely to have one run somewhere but he had little time for talk of jockey bookings.