The fire still burns bright with Nicholls
Jonathan talks to the champion trainer
Early this month Paul Nicholls celebrated a notable landmark in his matchless career as a racehorse trainer. He arrived at Manor Farm Stables at Ditcheat in Somerset in October 1991 with eight horses, a bucketful of dreams and an unshakeable belief that he would be successful.
While no one at the time could possibly have predicted that he would dominate the sport in the years ahead there was a clue in his first interview with Paul Barber,his future landlord when they met.
Barber recalls,“Paul was easily the outstanding candidate from the dozen or so people who applied to rent the yard.The minute we began talking I could see he was mad keen to get started, totally positive and focused.”
Fast forward a quarter of a century and Nicholls has now been champion trainer for ten of the past eleven seasons.
He has trained upwards of 2,600 winners, 111 of them at Grade 1 level,and has won many of the races that matter most in the racing calendar including four Gold Cups,a Grand National,and the astonishing tally of nine King George V1 Chases along with 40 winners at the Cheltenham Festival.
Nicholls has maintained a strike rate of 20 per cent or more for each of the past 21 years and last year passed the £2 million mark in prize money for the 14th consecutive season.
Yet statistics alone tell only half the story. What they cannot fully show is his God-given talent, his boundless enthusiasm every day he steps into the yard and his uncanny skill at keeping the same horses in a rich vein of form year on year. No one does it better.
Then there is his almost tangible will to win which encourages those who work with him to strive for success every bit as hard as he does.
That was never more evident than in April when the game looked all over for Nicholls after his great rivalWillie Mullins established a huge lead in their enthralling duel for the trainers’ title.
Short of genuine Grade 1 performers and with his team slow to strike in the summer and autumn, he had always known it would be a transitional season as he looked to promising younger horses to step up to the mark.
Three of them put a spring in his step by winning at the Cheltenham Festival which closed with him holding a reduced lead of £250,000 over Mullins.
But his heart must have been in his boots after he drew a rare blank at the Grand National meeting at Aintree where Mullins carried all before him.
With Mullins now ahead by over £180,000 and time running out, Nicholls did admit in his more private moments that the task looked impossible. But that didn’t stop him trying to close the gap as he has always been compulsively competitive.
Then,on an unforgettable day at Ayr on April 16,Nicholls struck with four winners including Vicente in the Scottish Grand National.
Suddenly the battle for the title was far from over and when Nicholls enjoyed another four timer at Wincanton the next afternoon it was clear it would not be decided until the final day of the campaign at Sandown.
The champion trainer left nothing to chance by sending 19 runners,more than he had ever done before at one meeting.
The jaunty success of Ptit Zig from his stable companion Silsol gave him a narrow advantage and though he was initially dismayed to see Just A Par overtaken near the line in his bid to win the bet365 Chase for the second time, his disappointment quickly turned to unbridled joy when people began rushing up to congratulate him on retaining his title.
Paul Nicholls first public reaction was to emphasise that this latest success was entirely down to Team Ditcheat. But he is the driver and given that Willie Mullins delivered 14 Grade 1 winners to his two, NIcholls is surely entitled to believe that his tenth championship was his finest hour.
Though at the time his overwhelming emotion was one of relief after an exhausting, stamina-sapping campaign that tested his resolve to the limit.
The next day the mood was entirely upbeat as he celebrated over a long and lively liquid lunch at the Manor Inn, Ditcheat with family,friends and a number of staff who all played a big part over the previous twelve months.
There were lots of speeches and a few renderings of We are the Champions with everyone singing along to the record by Queen.