Glory seeker in the pipeline

The young pretender of jump training is favourite to clip the heels of the old master. The Paul Nicholls Interview

Football has Manchester United, jump racing poor old Martin Pipe. Success may well breed success but it tends, in this country at least, to provoke base reaction. Pipe has done nothing more offensive than take the training of thoroughbreds to unprecedented levels of expertise and rewrite his sport's record books time and time again, yet he is the man that everyone wants to beat and everyone else wants to see beaten.

Football has Manchester United, jump racing poor old Martin Pipe. Success may well breed success but it tends, in this country at least, to provoke base reaction. Pipe has done nothing more offensive than take the training of thoroughbreds to unprecedented levels of expertise and rewrite his sport's record books time and time again, yet he is the man that everyone wants to beat and everyone else wants to see beaten.

Earlier this year, the Malvolios almost had their wish. For the first time in what seems like living memory Pipe's stranglehold on the trainers' championship was threatened and the race for the title, which is decided by total prize-money accrued, went down to the wire. It may seem rather rough luck on Paul Nicholls to finish runner-up after having sent out horses to net £1.2m for their owners and score 110 victories including the blue riband, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but such is the strength of Pipe's team.

Nicholls's tremendous effort with half the numbers of his rival may have been a double-edged sword. He has now proved that he is one of the few in the country capable of dethroning the perennial king but expectation is apt to lead to disappointment, particularly where horses are concerned. Nicholls tries to defuse the situation by declaring, in his gentle West Country burr, that he has set himself no goals in terms of the championship, but he is not wholly convincing.

There is a sense in racing, especially the cosy world of jump racing, that it is not very seemly for a fellow to be seen to express an allencompassing desire to win. And though Nicholls, 37, may look much cuddlier than Pipe and, in his regulation suit and trilby, much more in keeping with the familiar, acceptable pattern, he is just as single-minded. His progress up the ladder has been rapid; he first took out a licence only eight years ago this month, last season's prize-money haul was double his previous best and he acknowledges, with a glint in his dark grey eyes that is already relishing the battles to come, that his current team of horses is potentially the strongest he has assembled in terms of quality.

"You can't do this job properly unless you are seriously competitive," he said, "and it's a desperately emotional sport one way and another. The day I don't want to show what I feel - and that includes disappointment - will be the day I pack it in.

"After I won the Gold Cup and those other good races at Cheltenham this year, I couldn't really understand why people thought I'd perhaps achieved all I wanted to. Of course not; it was a wonderful meeting for us, but I immediately wanted to do it all again. The most important race is always the next one you're going to win."

Nicholls, his wife Bridget and their staff care for 75 or so horses at Ditcheat, near Shepton Mallet, in Somerset. He has the backing of some of jump racing's big-spending owners, including Paul Barber, on whose farm he trains. He makes his living by maximising their fun.

The policeman's son was a good jockey in the 1980s but he is a much better trainer. One thing, though, you will never hear from any sensible horsemen is how clever they are. The old adage about pride and falls comes from their world and disaster is only ever a stride away. "When we started, the first target was to give it five years and see," he said, "and then if it didn't work out then at least we'd tried. When you start you're like any business, you just hope to develop. Bigger targets come later. But we've been lucky enough to have some good owners and really nice horses."

Nice horses indeed. This year's squad includes See More Business, who looked very slick indeed when he launched his title defence at Wetherby earlier this month, and the other two Festival heroes, Call Equiname and Flagship Uberalles, plus others who threaten to take a hand at the highest level, like the Grand National prospects Double Thriller and Escartefigue, and Fadalko, an exciting novice who runs at Cheltenham this afternoon.

A higher profile brings more demands and a bigger operation more delegation. A racehorse trainer is only as good as the crew behind him and right now Manor Farm Stables is a happy ship. "It's all fairly intensive. At this time of year I'm flat out from six in the morning 'til 10 at night. But this sort of pressure I can cope with and thrive on."

Horses are individuals, not simply racing machines, and being intimately involved brings the full range of emotions into play. Frustration was high on the list at Cheltenham on Friday when Dines, a talented but enigmatic creature, refused to jump off with his rivals. He had played the trick before and his trainer was down there on the blocks to try to convince him of the error of his ways. But the attention to detail was thwarted by the antics of the starter, who decided that the runners had anticipated his wishes by an instant and called them back as they, Dines included, sprang forward. The gelding declined to play at the second time of asking.

The Cheltenham trio brought three different kinds of intense satisfaction. See More Business's Gold Cup was justice; the nine-year-old had been among the favourites the previous year when he was taken out through no fault of his own as one of Pipe's runners veered past a fence as he was pulling up. Call Equiname's Queen Mother Champion Chase was a reward for years of skill and teamwork; the grey has legs of glass and keeping him sound enough to race, let alone win at the highest level, is verging on the miraculous. Flagship Uberalles' Arkle Trophy was simply the triumph of youth, an uncomplicated baby fulfilling his potential.

"It was an incredible few days, and sometimes I can hardly believe it happened," Nicholls said. "I think, of the three, Call Equiname gave us most pleasure. See More Business justified our faith, but Call Equiname had overcome so many injury problems. For five years I'd thought he could win that race and it took us five years to get him there."

What Nicholls admits he did not enjoy was the last month of last season. After the Cheltenham Festival Pipe, seeing his title in danger, began to muster his cohorts with a vengeance and turn the screw.

The rivalry between the two West Country neighbours has always had a slight element of needle in it but as the campaign neared its end things became rather too sharp. Some slight rule-bending by Pipe in drafting extra recruits into his team was matched by Nicholls, though he was actually secretly relieved when neither benefited. "It all got very silly in the end," he said. "I knew we were going to be beaten because we simply didn't have the numbers to compete," he said. "If it had been decided on win prize-money alone we would have won, but it was the place money that swung it. It was heartening and flattering that just about everyone wanted us to win, but it wasn't to be and the championship certainly isn't a priority this time. We just want to produce nice horses to win nice races.

"People say I'm one of the ones who can tackle Martin but I'm actually not that conscious of it. You're trying to beat everyone, not just him. But he is exceptional at his job. He started when I was riding and I quickly realised the horses I was on weren't as fit as his. Fitness was his key, that's why they were, and are, winning, and I use the same short, sharp interval training methods. Like him we've got a short, steep uphill gallop and none of my staying chasers ever goes more than five furlongs at home."

The young pretender is playing the old hand at his own game and as the season gets into its stride their rivalry is bound to add some frisson to proceedings. "I have a lot of respect for Martin," added Nicholls, "but just because I think he's a very good trainer and very hard to beat it doesn't mean I have to send him a Christmas card."

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