The fire still burns bright with Ni­cholls

Jonathan talks to the cham­pion trainer

Racing Ahead - - JONATHAN POWELL -

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.

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