Buoyed with confidence having saddled his second winner of the week with Stay Away Fay earlier in the day, the champion trainer never shies from a challenge and wants another crack at the Willie Mullins-trained favourite, who eventually won by seven lengths.
The pair were locked in combat over the last of the 22 fences, but it was the 7-5 favourite, a year younger at seven, who prevailed.
“He’s run an absolute blinder, but he’s just been beaten by a very good horse. He couldn’t have done more and got a great ride by Harry (Cobden),” said Nicholls.
“He’ll be back next year when he’ll be another year stronger and we’ll have another go.
“Turning in I thought we had a right chance but the winner was fantastic, we always knew he was the horse to beat. The winner won on merit.
“What we have to consider is that our target was the King George and while this wasn’t an afterthought we weren’t always going to come here.
“We gave it a go, we weren’t sure about the track, but he travelled beautifully and we’ve just been outstayed from the last by a very smart horse and I’m very proud of him.
“We hate finishing second, but he was always going to be the horse to beat.”
He went on: “The track was never going to be a problem, I could never understand those who thought it was, he’s only run here once before today.
“A bit better ground would suit him, the whole way I was thinking he maybe just wasn’t travelling quite as well as he does on good ground but he’s a wonderful horse.
“Next year we’ll go Charlie Hall, King George and back here again. All the horses this week have run well bar Hermes Allen but he’ll be back. We’ve had a great Festival really, Stay Away Fay might be a Gold Cup horse of the future and we’ve been second in the Gold Cup.”
Cobden had no excuses, adding: “Seconds are never remembered are they, but he’s run a brilliant race and I couldn’t have been in a better position turning in.
“He’s galloped right to the line but we’ve been beaten by the better horse.
“I don’t think a lot of people felt he was man enough for a Gold Cup but he was relaxed, jumped well, stayed and was second best.”
Conflated finished a further six and a half lengths back in third for Gordon Elliott, who had a mini drama just before the race when his jockey Davy Russell was stood down by the doctor.
He was replaced by Sam Ewing and Elliott was full of praise for the youngster: “He didn’t miss a beat, he ran a great race. He got a little hampered turning in but it didn’t make much difference. We’re absolutely thrilled with him.
“Sam gave him a beautiful ride and got him in a lovely rhythm and he ran his heart out.
“Davy was sore, I didn’t get much chance to talk to him but he just told me he was too sore to ride our horse so it looks like he was kicked.
“We’ll see how he is before deciding if he runs again.”
Grand National winner Noble Yeats flew up the hill to pip Protektorat for fourth in what some will see as a perfect Grant National trial.
Owner Robert Waley-Cohen said: “I thought he ran really well, apart from the fact he got outpaced at some point.
“He wasn’t tailed off and he absolutely flew up the hill.
“I think he would have been happier with a bit more room, he was caught on the inside but then when Ahoy Senor fell it helped him a bit as it opened things out.
“Onwards to Aintree, if the horse is fine. What do they say about the Guineas, fourth in the Guineas, win the Derby. Let’s hope.”
Henry de Bromhead’s two previous Gold Cup winners Minella Indo and A Plus Tard were both pulled up.
“A Plus Tard was very unlucky. He was going well, tracking Paul (Townend on the winner) but then had to jump two horses (Ahoy Senor fell and brought down Sounds Russian).
“That’s the luck of the draw, but the main thing is he’s back. He needs to go left-handed so I imagine he will go to Aintree.
“Minella Indo completely missed the start. Nico (de Boinville) was annoyed but his chance had gone.”
Hewick still held place claims when falling at the second-last.