03/10/2009 11:00PM

Nicholls five-strong in Cheltenham Gold Cup


Trainer Paul Nicholls holds most of the aces in Friday's $653,000 Cheltenham Gold Cup, the 3 5/16-mile odyssey over 22 fences that rates as the world's most important steeplechase race.

Nicholls will saddle five in the great race, but most of the attention will be focused on his defending champ, Denman, and his 2007 winner, Kauto Star.

Denman beat Kauto Star into second by seven lengths in the Gold Cup a year ago but looked dull in his only start since then, finishing second by 23 lengths in the Grade 2 Levy Board Chase at Kempton Park on Feb. 7. Kauto Star won the Grade 1 King George VI Chase by eight lengths at Kempton on Dec. 26, but will be making his first start since then in the Gold Cup.

Nicholls will also saddle Neptune Collonges, the horse who led until the second last fence in the King George before falling, but has since won the Grade 1 Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Leopardstown. Longshots Star de Mohaison and My Will complete the Nicholls full house. Nicky Henderson, who sent out Punjabi to win Tuesday's Champion Hurdle, will seek a big-race double with the improving 7-year-old Barbers Shop.

The biggest danger to Team Nicholls, however, is Madison du Berlais, the 23-length winner of the Levy Board who had previously taken Newbury's Grade 1 Hennessy Gold Cup. Trained by David Pipe, the son of the 15-time British champion jumps trainer Martin Pipe, he will be ridden by Tom Scudamore, the son of eight-time British champion jumps jockey Peter Scudamore. With bloodlines like that behind him, Madison du Berlais could very well spoil Nicholls's big day.