Racing: Nicholls off and racing with her first Noelie

Face to follow for 2004: Debut winner at Cheltenham after just 16 runners is a dream start to career for fledgling trainer
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The Independent Online

The red letter day in this particular Bridget's diary came on New Year's Eve. It was the Cheltenham afternoon when the veteran steeplechaser Lord Noelie ended a barren spell stretching back almost four years and almost certainly started something far greater.

For Lord Noelie, at the age of 11, has only a limited shelf life in the sport of National Hunt racing. His fledgling trainer, Bridget Nicholls, older yet younger at 33, is at the other end of a career.

It would be slightly fraudulent to talk about Nicholls as a newcomer to the art of preparing horses. For nine years she assisted her husband, Paul Nicholls, as the newlyweds made their dreams a reality, turning a Somerset yard from a 12-horse nonentity into one of the fortresses of the winter game. Divorce from Paul may have followed, but there was no separation from success as Bridget went on to assist Henrietta Knight during the last glorious three years at West Lockinge Farm. These were the times of Best Mate, Edredon Bleu et al. It means that Bridget Nicholls has been either extraordinarily fortunate or that she knows what she is doing.

Now we get the definitive answer as Nicholls pushes the shadows behind and emerges into the limelight at a destination which sounds like the conquest of a former Republic Of Ireland football manager - the Victory House Stables in the Somerset village of Charlton Mackrell.

As Bridget Nicholls makes the coffees in the kitchen at Victory House, Jake, the Jack Russell, scratches the interloper. The dog is the pet of six-year-old Megan, the stickiest glue between the trainer and her former husband. Paul Nicholls is at sugar-borrowing distance, 15 minutes away north-east at Ditcheat. The relationship between the two, much to the chagrin of the scandal-mongers, is amicable. The family Nicholls, if they ever were, are now beyond crockery wars.

"We laugh about what people might say because it isn't an issue," she says. "We are on good terms and he has been a big help since I started. He was as pleased as I was when Noelie won the other day."

It amuses Bridget Nicholls to think that she has worked in two of the most successful racing depots in the country where the mechanisms have been so dissimilar. There is clearly more than one way to skin the opposition. "They are very different," she says. "Paul's horses go out in a big string, while Hen's go out in twos or threes. Even the feeding is completely different. Hen feeds a mix while Paul feeds a cube.

"The connection is that they have managed to get good horses. They have got owners who are not afraid to spend a pretty penny to get a good horse, whether it's a form horse, a store horse or a winning Irish pointer. You have to spend money for those type of horses."

Expediency dictates that Nicholls's favourite horse of the moment is Lord Noelie. His victory at Prestbury Park a fortnight ago was made even more piquant by the fact that Paul Nicholls's Montifault was among the vanquished. "To have my first winner at Cheltenham was so special," Bridget says. "Even Paul didn't manage that.

"It was a relief. The horses had been knocking on the door, finishing third or fourth and he was only my 16th runner and Paul or Martin [Pipe] can run about that number in a day and not have a winner. So initially it was relief and then a great thrilling feeling for the horse. He had not won for nearly four years. But it was relief because I had been putting so much pressure on myself."

Now, though, we are back to the future and a different challenge for Bridget Nicholls, one to prove she has not merely been an adjunct, rather a fulcrum, to successful operations. This is the joint task for her all-girl team. "The blacksmith certainly seems to enjoy coming down here," she says.

"Paul has said he would never want to go back to the start. But it's not going to be as hard as when I first set out because I've seen some of the pitfalls and I won't have to go through the trial and error of how to feed the horses for example. It's going to be a challenge but it's one I've chosen to take on.

"Fifty horses is what I would like. It is going to take some time and I know I have to resist the temptation to run the horses too quickly. That could be a waste of a race. They are not like cars, you can't just bring them out whenever you feel like it. There are some really good lady trainers on the circuit at the moment and I would like to be in there with them one day."