Connections of Nube Negra 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 an excellent start to the current campaign with victory in Cheltenham’s Shloer Chase in November.
He disappointed when well fancied for the the Tingle Creek at Sandown the following month, but having been kept fresh since, Skelton is expecting to see the real Nube Negra on his return to Prestbury Park.
“He’s an outstanding looking horse and his work at home is always very good, which you’d expect from a two-miler,” said Lodge Hill handler.
“He went to Warwick the other day. We didn’t ask him any questions, it was just a day out.
“The most important thing with this horse is to have him super fresh. If you have him off the back of a run within a month, it’s too close.
“He puts so much into his runs and his jumping – he just empties the tank.”
It is a measure of the depth of this year’s Champion Chase that Nube Negra is only fourth best in the market at 10-1, which much of the pre-race attention focussing on a rematch between Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin and the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene following their blockbuster clash at Ascot.
With Mullins also making positive noises about Chacun Pour Soi, who was only third when a hot favourite at Cheltenham 12 months ago, Skelton acknowledges his star has his work cut out.
He said: “Shishkin is very good, Energumene is very good and if you listen to Willie, Chacun Pour Soi is better than Energumene, so it’s a hot race.
“That’s before you bring in Grade One winners like Greaneteen and others – who’d have thought Envoi Allen would be 20-1 for a Grade One this time last year?
“We’re very happy with our horse and I can’t do anything about the others.
“You hope for a clear round to get there, a clear round when you get there and what will be will be.”
The following afternoon, Skelton is looking forward to saddling Shan Blue in the Ryanair Chase.
The eight-year-old has been off the track since suffering a heavy fall when seemingly set to run out a wide-margin winner of the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in October, but his trainer is quietly confident about his Festival prospects.
“Obviously he’d have won the Charlie Hall with a clear round, but ‘but’ is a massive word in sport and he didn’t,” said Skelton.
“He hurt his neck in that fall, as you would have expected – it was a pretty horrendous fall.
“We gave him plenty of time and decided we’d go down the Grade One route. I know his mark of 148 looks pretty salivating, but he’s a Grade One horse and he’s got to be in Grade One races.
“He looks incredible – I’ve been particularly happy with this horse. He went to Warwick the other day and went very nicely. We’ve done loads of jumping with him and I’m very happy with what I’ve seen.
“He’s taking on people’s idea of a banker in Allaho, but if you look beyond that it looks like the race could cut up quite significantly.
“I really like this horse and think there’s a lot of unfinished business.”
Skelton also has a strong hand of hurdlers as he bids to add to his four previous Festival wins.
Doctor Parnassus is viewed a serious player in the JCB Triumph Hurdle, while West Cork – winner of the Greatwood Hurdle earlier in the season – could provide his trainer with a fourth County Hurdle success.
“Doctor Parnassus is built like a tank and is a really strong, experienced horse,” said Skelton.
“When we bought him I thought he was going to be an add milk and stir juvenile. I thought it would be a very simple transition to hurdles and it has been.
“It hasn’t taken be my surprise as he’s got the physical and mental attitude to do it.
“He won’t mind getting down and dirty and I don’t think he even thinks about the ground. He’s almost got a Forrest Gump attitude – just run!
“I really like West Cork. He obviously won the Greatwood off a very long break and then had a terrible overreach at Ascot – I’ve never seen an overreach as bad with any horse.
“Having that overreach and having two weeks on the horse walker without being able to gallop almost ensured that he couldn’t run until now.
“I’m not going to backtrack on what I said – I said going to Ascot that this horse is a graded horse and I still believe that.
“We’ve always got one eye on the County Hurdle and I think he’s as good a chance as we’ve taken there – he will not be far away.”
Skelton also gave positive mentions to Too Friendly, who he believes has a “good profile” for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, and Coral Cup contender Unexpected Party.
At bigger odds, Skelton is keen on the chances of Nurse Susan in the Parnell Properties Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle and the Albert Bartlett-bound Ballygrifincottage.
He added: “Unexpected Party won very nicely at Ascot and he’s got a mark of 142. Really you need a graded horse in a handicap to win and hopefully he is that class – I’m sure he’s a contender.
“Nurse Susan is a big, imposing mare and I’ve been very impressed with her. I think she’s got it all.”
Skelton also revealed one-time Arkle hope Third Time Lucki is “pretty certain” to skip Cheltenham in favour of an appearance at Aintree in April, as is smart mare Elle Est Belle.