Deep Bramble pricks Nicholls' memories

A Gold Cup contender may prove a step ahead of Playschool. Greg Wood reports
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A sad memory may trouble Paul Nicholls for a moment as he saddles Deep Bramble before the Gold Cup at Cheltenham a week today. Not surprising, perhaps, since Nicholls was the jockey aboard Playschool, who started the favourite for the 1988 Gold Cup but ran so poorly that David Barons, his trainer, has always maintained that his runner was doped. But that incident is, Nicholls says, "dead and buried", and it is a different horse which may creep into his thoughts.

When Nicholls and his wife Bridget, newly married, started training at Ditcheat near Shepton Mallet in November 1991, "we'd sunk everything into it and we had to make it work. See More Indians was the first horse I ever bought at a sale and I fell in love with him the moment I saw him." Last year, in his novice chasing season, See More Indians won six of his seven starts including a Grade One race at Kempton, and was beaten only in the Sun Alliance Chase at the Festival. Less than three years into his training career, Nicholls began to think that already he had a future Gold Cup contender in his care.

Last summer, See More Indians was turned out in a field at Nicholls's yard. "I went out one morning and he was stood there with his leg in the air. I thought he just had a poisoned foot but when I got him back in I knew he wasn't right. The vet said it was a minor kick but he got worse and worse, so we X-rayed him. He'd shattered his elbow in three places and there was nothing they could do. I thought, we've lost the horse that was really going to get us somewhere."

It was a blow both for Nicholls and Paul Barber, the dairy farmer who owned See More Indians and from whom Nicholls rents his yard. After a decade as a professional jump jockey, though, the trainer had had plenty of practice at extracting himself from the mud and carrying on. And when the insurance money for See More Indians arrived, he and Barber looked around, and finally bought a promising chaser called Deep Bramble in Ireland.

"Paul might have preferred a novice," Nicholls says, "but I liked the way he seemed to fit in just where we'd left off, and run in the same sort of races that See More would have run in." It was an excellent decision. After shaking off a virus which troubled many of his trainer's runners earlier in the season, Deep Bramble won the Mildmay/ Cazalet Chase at Sandown and returned to the course a month later to take the Agfa Chase. The Grand National had long been his principal target, but suddenly the Gold Cup became a distinct possibility.

The prospect which tantalises both Nicholls and those who have supported Deep Bramble down to 16-1 for next Thursday's race is that his laid-back, "only do what I have to" attitude may hide considerable improvement. Until he is tested against the best, no one knows just how much he is keeping in reserve.

"He'd win a selling hurdle by only half a length," Nicholls says, "but I assure you that when he won the Mildmay/Cazalet he was only 80 per cent right. He'd been sick and I had real problems getting him fit. Then we went back to three miles with him and I thought we'd struggle to lay up with the pace, but he was always travelling and always going to win. He's definitely improved from that race and now he's as well as we've had him. If he's anywhere near at the last, he will fly up that hill."

In fact, given the incline up which Deep Bramble does most of his work, he may not even notice the famous finish at Cheltenham. Nicholls's principal all-weather gallop goes straight up the side of a hill and looks more suited to a mountaineer than a racehorse, but Deep Bramble runs up it three or four times a day. His talent may remain unquantified, but there will certainly not be a fitter horse at Prestbury Park all week.

Of course, Nicholls has been to Cheltenham with high hopes before, but the memory of his disappointment on Playschool does not trouble him. "Obviously David [Barons] is entitled to his opinion, but I've never thought he was got at. I was gutted, but it wasn't a total surprise. Before he even went chasing he'd had problems. I think his previous race at Leopardstown left a mark and he just ran out of miles."

Playschool started favourite for the Gold Cup while Deep Bramble is an outsider, but the trainer still feels that his contender "is a little in front of Playschool. He was a plodder who needed a real test of stamina, but Deep Bramble has a bit more class." This may simply be further testament to the quality of this year's Gold Cup. Or it could mean that Deep Bramble has a serious chance next week.

"If we got a place we'd be delighted," Nicholls said. "But we just don't know how good he is." The look on Nicholls's face said that he might be very good indeed.