Paul Nicholls says Monmiral’s performance in Saturday’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle will dictate the four-year-old’s season as the champion trainer prays for rain to arrive at Newcastle.
Monmiral steps out of juvenile company for the first time this weekend after winning all four of his starts in Britain last year, including the Grade One Anniversary Hurdle at Aintree when last seen in April.
He faces a tough task on his seasonal reappearance, taking on defending champion Epatante, who claims a 7lb mare's allowance, and the in-form Elite Hurdle winner Sceau Royal.
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Nicholls could be helped by the forecast, with 10-20mm of rain expected at Gosforth Park between Friday night and Saturday morning. The ground is currently good, good to soft in places after up to 20mm of water were added to parts of the track throughout the week.
"I'm glad to hear the weather forecast that there's plenty of rain about, because we were concerned about running him on faster ground," Nicholls said. "If they get that forecasted rain and it's good to soft or slower, that would be perfect.
"He has just schooled, is in good order and we're looking forward to the challenge.
"It's a step up in class for him but he couldn't have done any more than he's done.
"It is hard in that second year for four-year-olds as they don't get any allowance over hurdles so he'll need to be at the top of his game and will have to improve from last year.
"Only four four-year-olds have won the race but he doesn't know that. We're hopeful of a very good run but I'm not going to predict that we'll go and win. Let the horse do the talking."
Nicholls has already spoken of his excitement for Monmiral's future chase career but has chosen to put that on hold for the time being while connections try to pick up some major prizes over hurdles.
After Saturday, the Ditcheat handler could choose between a trip to Kempton at Christmas - for a likely rematch with Epatante - or a step up in trip.
"He was bought to be a staying chaser but he has got a high level of form," Nicholls said. "The race on Saturday will tell us where we are. It is very much a fact-finding mission, whether we go to the Christmas Hurdle after this or step up in trip.
"He is obviously a talented horse and is unbeaten. Last year he was quite lazy, laidback and slow with everything he did at home. He has sharpened up a bit this year.
"He always saves his best for the track, but that's the sign of a good horse.
"We didn't want to go chasing this year so we end up having to run in these kind of races."
Bowen excited to get back on board
Sean Bowen takes the ride of Monmiral at Newcastle, having partnered the four-year-old to two of his four victories last season.
The jockey is expecting a tough challenge but hopes Monmiral has improved again over the summer.
"It's very exciting," Bowen told Sky Sports Racing. "He was good in everything he did last season and I felt he progressed each time I rode him. He was a big horse with a big frame to fill and hopefully he's strengthened up again over the summer.
"He's a strong traveller and a very good jumper so will make into a lovely chaser.
"Four-year-olds can often have a quiet year, but the horses he's beaten have come out and run well, like Adagio's second in the Greatwood and Nassalam has won at Ascot.
"It's a very good race. We're up against Epatante and Sceau Royal, who is a good horse if the ground is better. It's a proper Grade One that's for sure."
Bowen has few concerns about conditions at Gosforth Park, feeling that his mount is versatile enough to handle whatever the weather brings.
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"He won on good to soft at Aintree and is fairly versatile in that sense," said Bowen. "Good to soft ground would be perfect.
"He's been around all sorts of tracks, including Doncaster and Aintree, and handled them all pretty well. Newcastle is fairly straightforward so I'm looking forward to it."