Horse Racing - Nicholls hopes to see early spring for Irving

Paul Nicholls is praying for an upturn in the weather, as Irving's Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle form strengthens ahead of Cheltenham festival.

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Trainer Paul Nicholls at Wincanton Racecourse, Somerset.

The seven-time champion trainer will have looked on with glee as Splash of Ginge landed the Betfair Handicap Hurdle at Newbury on Saturday.

Irving beat the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained six-year-old in a Group 2 contest at Ascot back in December and heads to the Supreme Novices' Hurdle as a general 8-1 second favourite.

Willie Mullins' Vautour leads the market at 4-1 but Nicholls believes some firmer ground will see Irving, unbeaten in three starts over hurdles, provide a stiff challenge.

"He is the one we are aiming for it," said Nicholls. "His form is looking good, he is in good shape and it would be nice to see some spring ground for him."

In contrast, former Supreme Novice Hurdler Al Ferof is keeping his options open ahead of the festival, as the soft ground continues to affect owners and trainers' preparations.

The nine-year-old was beaten by Harry Topper in Saturday's Betfair Denman Chase and, with entries in three separate festival races, a decision will not be made until nearer the time.

Al Ferof is as short as 6-1 for the Ryanair Chase, but owner John Hales is keen on a crack at the Gold Cup and not ready to rule it out yet.

He said: "On the evidence of Saturday, you would have to say he wouldn't stay the Gold Cup trip on that ground, but would you get that ground at the Festival?

"He flies round Cheltenham and on good ground it could be different again.

"I think as far as the media is concerned, you are going to get the same answer from a lot of people as you just don't know what will happen with the weather. It's a bit far off to be making a decision."

On the course there was success for Tony McCoy and Ryan Mania on Monday, as the two jockeys each landed a pair of wins at Catterick.

McCoy made a bright start to the day, landing the Novices' Hurdle on Capote before 11-4 favourite Hawaii Five Nil won a competitive two-mile hurdle.

And Mania teamed up with trainer Sue Smith for a pair of Class 3 wins, aboard Pinerolo and Herdsman respectively.

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