THE Cheltenham Festival of 2013 proved something of a low point in the brilliant career of Paul Nicholls.
The man who had dominated jump racing as champion for seven consecutive seasons came away from Prestbury Park with just one winner over the four days, Salubrius, in one of the lesser races.
And it signalled the end of his unbroken run as champion as he forfeited the title to Lambourn’s Nicky Henderson.
His old guard of horses – like Denman, Master Minded and Kauto Star – had retired, Big Buck’s was sidelined with injury, and even stable jockey Ruby Walsh jumped ship preferring to focus on his partnership with the Nicholls of Irish racing, Willie Mullins.
But Nicholls returns to the Festival in less than three weeks optimistic that he packs one of his strongest ever teams.
He is also back on top of the trainers’ prize money table.
Nicholls rates former champion staying hurdler Big Buck’s, the mount of Naunton-based Sam Twiston-Davies, as the pick of his squad over the four-day showpiece.
The 11-year-old gelding saw his unbroken sequence of 17 consecutive wins come to an end on his recent comeback at Cheltenham after more than a year away – but Nichiolls has kept the faith.
Parading his Festival team at his Somerset base last week, Nicholls selected Big Buck's, who is bidding for an amazing fifth Ladbrokes World Hurdle success, and Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup second favourite Silviniaco Conti as his top two prospects.
Of Big Buck’s, Nicholls said: "When they have had leg trouble, you do have to train them a bit with the handbrake on so he was always going to need the (comeback) run.
"Big Buck's lost 10 kilos after Cheltenham and it tightened him up. There's only one day we want him back to his best for. He's a much better horse on decent ground so I hope it's not too soft. He's my best chance at the Festival this year."
Silviniaco Conti, who gave Nicholls an eighth King George VI Chase victory on Boxing Day, is his number one hope for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup in which he fell last season.
"I thought he was travelling extremely well in last year's race. I think he was going to finish first or second but who knows?" said Nicholls.
"His stamina kicked in when he won the King George and I think he has a leading chance in the Gold Cup. He is the right age and has strengthened up.
Of the remainder of his team, Nicholls selected both Irving and Calipto.
Irving is heading to the opening race of the meeting, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and Nicholls said: "We got him from Germany and he's three from three over hurdles and his form was boosted when Splash Of Ginge won the other day.
“He has loads of speed and jumps nicely."
Calipto is due to contest the JCB Triumph after scoring at Newbury recently.
"The handicapper has put him up to 149, which is high for a juvenile, and I think Le Rocher – on the same mark – and him are the two highest-rated juveniles in Britain and Ireland,” said the trainer.
"He'll go straight to the Triumph and the only doubt I have is that it often seems to be horses with Flat form who win the race."