Paul Nicholls: Putting his focus on playing the generation game
After Kauto Star and Denman rode into the sunset, perennial champion trainer is grooming his next batch of talent in time for Cheltenham
It used to be a proper millionaires' row, this top little corner of the yard, for all its worn brickwork and mossy tiles. Kauto Star himself was in the first stall, and next door loomed the massive Denman.
From 2007 to 2009, the neighbours passed the Cheltenham Gold Cup between them: first Kauto Star won it; then Denman wrested it brutally off him; and then Kauto Star got his brilliant revenge. That same year Master Minded and Big Buck's, peering out of boxes just yards away, also won championship races at the Cheltenham Festival. Their trainer, Paul Nicholls, had established the most powerful British jumps stable in the modern era.
But now the same stalls are given over to anonymous young animals. Above the one that once housed Kauto Star, the weathervane stood becalmed in the raw grey Somerset air. It has long seemed emblematic of the old-fashioned stamp of horse that has excelled here: the silhouette of a huntsman, jumping after hounds. For the time being, however, the scent of glory has gone a little cold.
True, any other trainer would love this kind of crisis. After all, the man who has finished each of the past seven seasons as champion still clings to a narrow lead in the prize-money table. Only last spring he redressed two of the few remaining omissions in his CV, winning the Champion Hurdle with Rock On Ruby, and then the Grand National itself with Neptune Collonges. And he anticipates saddling at least two dozen runners at the Festival next month.
But Nicholls himself is under no illusions. Though as breezy and upbeat as ever, parading his Festival team to a media open morning, he accepts that things have changed. Denman had already been retired, last year, but has since been followed by Kauto Star. Nicholls had eked out the old horse's talent in wondrous fashion, but his career ended in acrimony as his owner elected to try him in dressage. Big Buck's, after a record 18 consecutive hurdle wins, is sidelined with injury. Neptune Collonges was retired on the spot at Aintree, and Nicholls's outstanding hope this time, Tidal Bay, is lame and out of the National.
Moreover Rock On Ruby will be defending his crown in the name of Harry Fry, who supervised his preparation last year at Nicholls's satellite yard across Somerset. Fry has since taken out a training licence in his own right, and now Dan Skelton, Nicholls's assistant, is also set to go solo after nine years at Ditcheat. Unmistakably, Nicholls is facing a challenging period of transition.
"With Big Buck's, you always had a nap hand," he said. "But we're in a different place now. Every bullet has to count. Looking at the betting, I'm 10-1 to be top trainer at the Festival. So yes, we probably are underdogs this year. At the same time, we do have a lot of horses that could win races there."
Skelton puts it realistically: "Before, we always had star names going there with the lights all shining on them, all the cameras clicking," he said. "This time there's a bit of uncertainty. Instead of 6-4 favourites, we've 4-1 or 5-1 shots, second or third favourites. But you never realise what you have until it's gone."
Even during Kauto Star's pomp, however, Nicholls was reliably animated by restless ambition. He knew the cycles of his calling to be unnervingly slow. It can take years for a gawky, raw steeplechasing prospect to mature; years to establish how good, bad or indifferent a racehorse he might be. Last autumn, Nicholls duly recognised a crossroads.
"There was a conscious decision that we had to restock, from the roots up," Skelton said. "There was never any talk about trying to do it the quick way, by offering telephone numbers for established stars. It would be done from the base up. So we went to France and brought together around 12 nice young horses, all juveniles and novices."
Some are blooming so quickly that they will proceed to the Festival, but it is a long-term project. "You do get a kick from it all," Nicholls said. "From finding these young horses, and bringing them through: four-year-olds, chasers of the future. The front yard here is totally different from what it was. But it was never going to last forever, and it's no good standing still in this game. You've got to keep moving."
Like a good football manager, Nicholls has rebuilt his squad by dovetailing academy graduates with a maturing core. As though emboldened by new responsibility, Silviniaco Conti has progressed in startling fashion this winter to become one of the leading fancies for the Gold Cup. Zarkandar, likewise, is reckoned much improved since finishing fifth in the Champion Hurdle last year.
"Paul was very pragmatic," Skelton recalled. "It was a shame it had all happened at once, but it was never going to last forever and we just had to pick ourselves up. 'Don't worry,' he said. 'One will come.' And that's just what has happened. Because Paul can nurture a good horse into a great one."
Nicholls himself even claims to be enjoying a degree of respite from the pressures of years past. Twelve months ago, Kauto Star had a schooling fall as he prepared for his seventh consecutive Festival appearance. Horses were coughing. "We were really struggling," he said. "We had to put Zarkandar on antibiotics for 10 days. You kid yourself that would put them right, but you knew deep down it would knock them back, and he did run flat at Cheltenham. This time they all look so healthy and well. We had five winners last Saturday. If ever there was a year we were going to struggle, it was this one. But somehow we're still hanging in there. Next year, we'll be even stronger."
Skelton looks at his boss and evokes his father, Nick, a champion in another field of equine competition. "Paul is a believer," Skelton said. "And my dad has always taught me to be the same. Dad gets onto a horse that has no right to be at a Grand Prix, and the moment he's in the saddle he has persuaded himself they can jump clear. Paul instils that same confidence into everyone around him, be it horses or people. That's the way you have to be, around horses. You have to believe. And Paul never stops evolving. If he's not champion this year, he certainly will be again. This is not the end."
Born 17 April 1962
Rode 119 winners in nine-year journeyman career as jockey
1991 Began training with eight horses
2006 First of seven consecutive trainers' championships
2008 First trainer to win £4 million prize money in a season
2011 Twenty years after his first winner, became quickest to train 2,000 over jumps
32 Cheltenham Festival winners to date – fourth in all-time standings
Trained Kauto Star to win the King George VI Chase five times, and Big Buck's to win four World Hurdles in a record spree of 18 wins
Chris McGrath's Nap
Flamborough Breeze (7.30 Kempton) Often promised better and really clicked when ridden by George Baker for the first time over course and distance last week, tanking through and looking more than equal to a penalty here.
Al Enbess (8.0 Kempton) Hard for the handicapper after this one's improvement when landing good support in a Lingfield maiden. He looks to have been fairly indulgent.
One to watch
Far West (Paul Nicholls) In the JCB Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Where the money's going
Duke Of Lucca is 12-1 from 16-1 with Ladbrokes for Saturday's Racing Plus Chase at Kempton.
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