Paul Nicholls has just returned from a two-week holiday in Barbados, a world apart from Ditcheat near Shepton Mallet, where he trains his 100-odd horses.
Or so you might think.
"I was on the fax and the phone all the time, checking the runners. I'd get a fax every morning and evening, make comments and fax it back. And you can watch them run in Bridgetown about 10 in the morning with the time difference. There's a betting shop there, with screens everywhere. It's like a betting shop in Wincanton. There were a lot of owners out there, actually. It was just like being in England."
Not many people come back from two weeks in Barbados extolling the island's virtues because it was just like being in England, but then trainers are a different breed from the rest of us. Carol Pipe once dragged her husband Martin for a rare holiday, three days at the fabulous La Mammounia hotel in Marrakech. After a few hours he was yearning to go home to his horses. It was only a chance meeting with Henry Cecil, who happened to be staying there too, that made the holiday tolerable. Imagine, Pipe and Cecil in Marrakech, with nothing much to do. It's a wonder that year's Cheltenham Gold Cup wasn't won by a camel.
Pipe, of course, is a dead cert to be declared champion National Hunt trainer yet again this year. Nicholls – currently third in the money list, just behind Philip Hobbs – has long since given up on the thought of becoming this season's champion trainer, having thrillingly pushed Pipe to the last day of the 1998-1999 season. "It would just be nice to have 100 winners," he says. "We've got 78 so far." Shotgun Willy, running on Saturday in the Aon Chase at Newbury – the race he surprisingly won last year by beating the much-fancied First Gold – might just push Nicholls a little nearer his target. And after that Cheltenham looms.
"But you can't think too much about Cheltenham yet. Shotgun might run a blinder on heavy ground this Saturday, but come Cheltenham you don't know what the ground will be. We've horses with bits of chances for Cheltenham, but that's all I can say. And we've had a bit of a coughing problem these last few weeks. But then we had a setback with coughing in January 1999, and come the spring See More [Business] won the Gold Cup and Flagship Uberalles won the Arkle, so you never know." You never do, although it's a fair bet that Nicholls' horses will be there or thereabouts. It is no disgrace for a National Hunt trainer to toil in Pipe's long shadow, and he has still made a remarkable impact in his 10 years as a trainer. Nobody, not even Pipe, has trained 600 winners as quickly as Nicholls managed it, starting on a wintry day in a novice chase at Hereford.
"Alveston, on 23 December, 1991, that was my first winner," recalls Nicholls, who is still two months shy of 40. "Funnily enough he was named after the village my parents live in, and my dad had a share in him. We had a double on Boxing Day just after that, and 10 winners in that first season. Now I sometimes get 10 winners in a week, but at the time it meant everything."
We are talking in his office, overlooking the yard at Ditcheat. For a former jockey good enough to have twice won the Hennessy Gold Cup, as well as the Welsh Grand National, Nicholls is a surprisingly big man. I like him, although it has to be said that charm is not one of his attributes. He wastes no time on small talk, and excuses himself as soon as basic courtesy permits, explaining that he doesn't want to be late for a meeting down the road at Wincanton.
Fair enough. It's that kind of urgency, and a lack of concern for life's fripperies, that has brought him success. It might also have contributed to his marriage break-up. His ex-wife Bridget, in that way of the turf, is the sister of the ex-wife of jockey Mick Fitzgerald, and now works for Henrietta Knight. Nicholls denies that this has caused him professional discomfort. "We get on really well, although I'd rather not touch on that too much." Again, fair enough. Instead, I ask him what inspired his riding career, for his father was a policeman and there were not, so to speak, any horses in the family.
"Some pals of my dad's had a riding school, and I rode one of the ponies one day. I thought it was wonderful, so I pestered my dad to buy me a pony, which he did, and it went from there. Gymkhanas (he pronounces this the Somerset way – gymkhaaana), point-to-points. I happened to ride some nice horses as an amateur, and then I got offered a job at Josh Gifford's." Riding, he says, was always intended as a stepping-stone towards a training career.
"The best thing about being a jockey was seeing how the trainers operated. I had spells with Josh Gifford, Les Kennard, and David Barons in the year he won the National with Seagram. And it was also good for me that I was riding at a time when Pipey was getting going. It was fascinating to me that these things of his were winning everything just because they were fitter than everyone else's. And riding in races you knew that." In the summer of 1989, while riding out on Topsham Bay, Nicholls was kicked badly. His leg was broken. "It was bloody painful, but I remember thinking: 'Thank God, at least I can go to hospital and have something to eat now'.
"I seriously struggled with my weight. It was a nightmare. There was no help or advice on dieting, no weight control like jockeys get now. It was just a case of eating nothing and living in a sauna." Nicholls never rode professionally again, indeed has not so much as sat on a horse for the last three years. He came to Ditcheat after seeing an advert in the Racing Post. "It said '30-box racing yard, owner will leave two horses in training'. I came up here to see Paul and the rest is history." Paul is Paul Barber, a wealthy dairy farmer who has become a friend and to some degree a patron to Nicholls.
"He's been a great support, although he pays the same training fees as everyone else, and charges me rent. Everyone thought I was a private trainer, but I never was. And all the money I've earned has been invested in the yard. It was 30 boxes and one gallop, now it's 70 boxes and two gallops. Paul is always there in the background, but it's my business, and I run it the way I want." Early on, this single-mindedness won him few friends. "I was maybe in a bit of a hurry," he concedes. "I gave Mick Fitzy [Fitzgerald] probably the biggest bollocking he's ever had in his life, when I thought he should have won at Taunton on a horse called Thatcher Rock. Looking back he would say I was trying too hard. But I was only guilty of wanting to do well."
He has mellowed over the years, he says. He has also come to realise that the best stable lads aren't lads at all. "About three-quarters of my team are girls," he says. "And it works well. Normally, lads in racing all want to be jockeys, and if you don't give them rides they get pissy. You tell them: 'I can't promise any rides. Work hard for six months and then we'll see'. But one month down the road they forget all that. They're a waste of time.
"Whereas the girls can all ride well, they can ride anything up the hill." The hill at Ditcheat helps Nicholls get his horses fit, which he recognised long ago as the key to success. "Actually," he says, "I probably learnt most [about getting horses fit] from a guy called Dick Baimbridge. He trained point-to-pointers in the Berkeley [Hunt] country, Gloucestershire, and he trained them up a hill like we do. He was able to transform mud, he was. He'd buy a 12-year-old for 500 quid at Ascot sales that had never been sighted in three years, and go and win seven on the trot with it." Nicholls does not own any of the horses he trains – "it would be like owning a hotel, you don't want the rooms full of your family" – but if he did own a horse, he would place it, he says, with either Philip Hobbs or Venetia Williams. "We all have our own ways but you know Philip, Venetia, Nicky Henderson, are doing the job right," he says. He hasn't mentioned Pipe? "Well, obviously everyone goes to Pipey. My rivalry with him gets grossly exaggerated." Are they friends? He honours me with a fleeting smile. "I don't know many people would say they were friends with Pipey."
Nicholls look at his watch. It is time for him to dash to Wincanton. Before he goes, I ask him which of his charges we should look out for? "Le Roi Miguel will be a really smart chaser one day. And Vol Solitaire, who won last week at Cheltenham, is one to watch."
And what, finally, of the cynical suggestion that owning a racehorse is just an elaborate way of setting fire to tenners? Another small smile. "All sport costs money. Yeah, this one's expensive. It probably costs 12 grand a year to run a jumping horse. But what other sports are there where, if you're lucky, you can get some money back out of it. Last year we won £1.1m in prize money. Averaged out, that probably pays the training fees of every horse here." From the yard there is a perfectly-timed whinny, doubtless in agreement.Reuse content