Twist Magic fought off strong competition to land the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot on Saturday, halving his Queen Mother Champion Chase odds and promising to provide stiff competition to stablemate Master Minded.
Sent off the 11-8 favourite, the eight-year-old led for most of the race, fighting off a game effort from Tony McCoy aboard Petit Robin to record a clear 12 length victory.
After winning the Tingle Creek for the second time at the start of December, NichollsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ horse had it all to do to convince even his trainer that he could perform away from his favoured Sandown. But despite being made to work by Petit Robin, Ruby WalshÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mount displayed his Cheltenham credentials for all to see.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Everything about him is different,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Nicholls.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“To be a real champion chaser, to me, he had to win today. He’s put four great runs together now and one on a track that I think doesn’t suit him, so that puts him right in the mix.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“He seems to have grown up and heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll head straight to Cheltenham now. In this form he can win the Champion Chase and he is right in there.Ã¢â‚¬Â
To do that though, Twist Magic is going to have to improve markedly on his previous form round the course.
Having fallen on two occasions and finished a tame sixth on the other, the horse has yet to show any fondness towards the Cheltenham track.
But yesterdayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s display has clearly impressed the bookies, many of whom have slashed his Champion Chase odds from 8-1 to 4-1.
There is little doubt though that there is another major factor in Twist MagicÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s short Festival odds Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Master MindedÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s current absence.
The two-time Champion Chase winner has been off the track since Nicholls identified a rib injury as the reason for his defeat to Well Chief in November.
And while the trainer says he has been pleased with the star 7-year-oldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s work at home on the gallops, he is less sure about his plans leading up to the Festival.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“If Master Minded is at his very best, there’s not a lot that would be a match for him, but he’s got to come back from problems,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“He’s been cantering for the past two weeks but we haven’t pressed the buttons just yet.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Clive [Smith, his owner] is back from holiday next week and we’ll make a decision then. If I can, I will run him in the Game Spirit [at Newbury on 13 February], just to see where we are with him, because otherwise we’re going into Cheltenham in the dark and it’ll be nice for his confidence for him to have a run.Ã¢â‚¬Â
When at full fitness there isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t a horse in the world who can challenge Master Minded, but the doubts surrounding his build up to Cheltenham seem to have left the door somewhat ajar for a challenger to his crown.
Is Twist Magic up to the task or will Master Minded (still the clear 7-4 favourite) fight back to become only the second horse to win a third Champion Chase on March 17?
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m sure Nicholls wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mind too much either way.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge