Racing: After years in Pipe's shadow Nicholls at last sees a glint of the trainers' trophy
Paul Nicholls tells Chris McGrath that rivalry with the champion trainer is not his main motivation... but then again
Thursday 26 January 2006
Milestones are supposed to measure the road, not lengthen it. In sport, however, they often become millstones. To do justice to Paul Nicholls - and, you suspect, to preserve his sanity - it is important to distinguish between, say, a batsman who repeatedly surrenders his wicket in the 90s, and the fact that he has finished runner-up in the trainers' championship seven times.
As it happens, with a lead of over £400,000, it seems likely that Nicholls is finally about to prise the title away from Martin Pipe. Since last Saturday, however, history has found another way of formally recording his talent - and it is, perhaps, a far more expressive one.
At his local course, Wincanton, Nicholls became the first British trainer to win six races on one card. The whole afternoon proved such a daze that he ended up feeling "embarrassed". Yet while the trainers' championship has basically graded him against just one man, he has now achieved something that has eluded not just Pipe - despite far more calculated attempts, at far less competitive meetings - but any of the great trainers to have preceded them.
Nicholls always finds himself defined against Pipe. It is as though people in the valley cannot see one peak without reference to its neighbour. Undoubtedly there are stimulating differences. Bar the odd flinty outcrop, Pipe always seems wreathed in cloud, whereas Nicholls can be approached by generous, inviting paths. Yet nobody ever seems to bother to see what the world might look like from the summit.
Still only 43, Nicholls remains suffused with nervous energy and ambition. Even relaxing over a pint in his local this week, as low, somnolent sunlight caressed the panelling, he could not quite shed that restless, feisty air. "I never thought I was going to fail," he said. "I was always determined and positive. I started here in '91 with eight horses. I had no big backers. I only had Paul Barber [his landlord], who had two. I used to muck out three, ride out three. I put everything I had into it."
And he does not seem to have paused for breath since. Six weeks ago, his second wife, Georgie, gave birth to a daughter, but she has made precious little difference to his sleep. "I honestly don't remember the last day off I had," he said. "But then I'd be lost if I had one. If I sleep three or four hours at night, I've done well. Brain's working all the time. Some of the best ideas I've had have been waking up in the middle of the night.
"One thing that always frightens me is retiring. I never stop. It does make things hard in some ways. You hardly have time for a proper relationship. I suppose you could take your foot off the pedal, cut down to 60 horses and be a bit more laid-back. But that wouldn't be me."
He confesses himself exasperated by the paradox dividing his dynamism and his growing bulk. "I can't understand it," he said. "Everyone must look at me and think 'lazy bastard'. I don't eat much, and I don't stop, seven days a week." Still, he shrugs, it is there in his genes. Both his father and grandfather evidently presented a forbidding spectacle under a policeman's helmet. (His grandfather played rugby at 19st when still a teenager.)
Either way, it seems grotesque that Nicholls ever suppressed his physique to be a jockey. His riding career was built on the treacherous foundations of "laxatives, saunas, pee-pills", and he admits that he could not hope to ride under more enlightened supervision nowadays. He rode only 118 winners, albeit they included consecutive Hennessy Gold Cup winners. All the time, however, he was absorbing horse lore. He worked for several trainers, including David Barons when Seagram won the Grand National, and Dick Baimbridge, who trained hunters up the sort of steep hill that underpins his own success.
"I was riding just when Pipey started doing well, and I soon worked out his horses were winning because they were fitter than anyone else's," he said. "Simple as that. So fitness was always going to be a key part of what we did. I've learned to chill a lot. There was a time when I was in too much of a hurry, made the wrong decision because I wanted to do things too quickly. But you have to learn by your mistakes. It's not something you can read in a book. You have to do things by feel. We don't do a lot of blood tests. When they look right, work well and eat well, you're not far off."
The obvious, implicit contrast is with Pipe, who even has his own laboratory. Nicholls made his breakthrough when See More Business won the 1999 Gold Cup, but might easily have done so 12 months previously but for the same horse being forced off the track when Cyborgo - trained by Pipe - was abruptly pulled up. While Nicholls insists that it is all ancient history now, it is well documented that the two men did not laugh off this episode over a drink. "I hardly spoke to anyone for a week," he said. "I'd cope with it totally differently now, being that much older, but at the time it was dreadful. And the odd thing was that Paul Barber had bloody dreamed that it was going to happen the night before. He told me before the race."
After their bareknuckle duel during the final days of last season, it would be disingenuous for either Pipe or Nicholls to deny the ferocity of their rivalry. "Every year we have ended up with 400 runners fewer than Martin," Nicholls reflected. "If you had given me another 100, 200 runners, I'd have beaten him. He's been winning the championship every year through sheer number of runners. People forget that. This year, things have been different. Hopefully, we can get to the last couple of weeks without the bloody stress of last year."
He defends the way all hands were rushed on deck in pursuit of last year's title. "The ground was good and the horses in form, so we gave it our best shot. Had it been firm, it would have been different. But you wouldn't be human if you didn't try. I wasn't going to wave a white flag. To match Martin I had to be as aggressive as he was. Yes, it was getting over the top. The last day of the season I didn't enjoy at all. When Azertyuiop got injured, I went home. I'd had enough.
"I'm not doing this because I'm trying to win the title. I'm doing this because I've built up a successful business, and because we have owners who put a lot of money into it and want to win nice races. If we win the championship, well that's great, we'll have a bloody big piss-up. If we don't, it won't make any difference whatsoever."
He pauses, inflamed by the temerity of those who suggest he will have failed if he never wins the title. "How the hell can you fail when you've trained 160 winners and won £2.8m, like we did last season?" he said. "How is that failure? That's what gets taken out of context. There are a lot of people who would like to see someone else as champion - that's what it is, I think. Probably more people out there want me to be champion than I do."
Nicholls is quite animated now. Having been promised he would not be vexed with talk of the championship, with talk of Pipe, he is now vexing himself. It seemed politic to steer back to calmer waters. Half-way through the next question, however, Nicholls resumes in fervent tones. "I've built this up from nothing," he said. "From nothing. I had £10,000 in my pocket, everything I could save from riding, when I started off. Determination got me where I am and I'm proud of everyone involved - it's all by sheer hard work, and by a brilliant team."
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