Paul Nicholls believes the Paddy Power New Year’s Day Handicap Chase at Cheltenham tomorrow (New Year’s Day, Monday 1st January 2024) is the ‘perfect race’ for dual Grade One winner Stage Star to tackle on route to an outing in the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
A trip to Ireland for the Grade One Savills Chase at Leopardstown had been mentioned for the son of Fame And Glory, however the Ditcheat handler has opted to keep Stage Star, who will turn eight on New Year’s Day, closer to home for the £100,000 Premier Handicap.
After running out the winner of the Grade One Turners Novices’ Chase at The Festival on his penultimate start last season, the Owners Group-owned gelding then trailed home last of five runners at the same level in the Racehorse Lotto Manifesto Novices’ Chase at Aintree.
Stage Star returned to winning ways on his seasonal debut with a tenacious success in the Paddy Power Gold Cup Handicap Chase at the November Meeting at Cheltenham to take make it three wins from as many appearances over fences at the Home of Jump Racing.
And having reported Stage Star to have been in fine form at home since that victory Nicholls is confident of another big run in the extended two-and-a-half-mile test.
Nicholls said: “There weren’t too many options to be honest with you so we thought we would have a look at this.
“It is only a small field for a £100,000 handicap, but he has got to go somewhere on route to the Ryanair Chase and this is the perfect race for him.
“I’m glad we didn’t go over to Ireland as it looked like it was going to be a hell of a hot race. I thought let’s come here instead as he likes it at Cheltenham and he has won around there before.
“He schooled well on Friday, and he worked yesterday morning (Saturday), but it has been pretty much routine stuff since the Paddy Power Gold Cup.
“He loves it around there. I’ve no idea why, although he does like going left-handed. We have to run somewhere as he can’t stand in his box until the Cheltenham Festival and this race works out well for him.”
Although Stage Star will have to give weight away all around from a career high mark of 166 the 14-time champion trainer believes he has the class to overcome the burden of being at the top of the handicap.
He added: “He is possibly going to have to step up again off a mark of 166, but he is the class horse in the race.
“He is improving, and the form of his Paddy Power Gold Cup win has been franked with Fugitif, who was fourth that day, coming out and winning the December Gold Cup at Cheltenham so I’d like to think he would be hard to beat.
“I do like to run good horses off big weights in handicaps. Phil Smith (former handicapper) used to say more often than not the top weight in a handicap wins.
“It is something that we’ve done with lots of horses in the past and if it is the right race for them then you do it.
“I don’t think it is the hottest race in the world, but it is competitive. His sole aim this season is the Ryanair Chase and this would be it for him until then.”