Racing: The week Nicholls has to stay a jump ahead

Intensity is high in deepest Somerset as the meeting that defines a whole year arrives

At this time of year, being around Paul Nicholls brings to mind nothing more than a line from the film Apollo 13. "And you, sir," says one mission control expert to another after a particularly astute piece of expertise, "are a steely-eyed missile man."

Right now, Nicholls' gaze is razor-sharp and his targets ruthlessly selected. The Cheltenham Festival is here and there is nothing cosy about life at Manor Farm Stables in the pretty Somerset landscape of the Blackmore Vale. The quest for winners is at its most intense, and as potential star after potential star is presented for inspection and its pros-pects for the most important week of the year succinctly summed up, it is a lesson that this is not the Pony Club but a business, and a highly successful and efficient one.

Policeman's son Nich-olls, formerly a jump jockey, is in the 15th season of his second career and has more than 100 horses under his care. He has sent out not only more winners than any rival this term (125), but at a better strike-rate (25 per cent), and has earned more than £1.8 million for his owners. He never stops planning, thinking, hoping. His enthusiasm is infectious, his energy boundless, and both are delivered with an absolute commitment.

He sometimes appears driven, but he sees himself as merely positive. "I always have been and, I hope, always will be. I think - I hope - it rubs off on those around you. Your staff, your jockeys and through them, the horses.

"It may be a fault, it may not. But if you want to be at the top in this game and stay there, you have to be on the ball, thinking about it the whole time. That means making yourself available to yourself 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I sleep well, but not for long. I don't seem to need much and anyway I have some of my best ideas when I'm awake in the small hours."

Such is the ferocity of the scrap for success this week that the mantra among trainers is always "happy with one", and Nicholls is realistic enough to toe that line. But, in truth, it would be a disappointing haul, given his firepower - he has the first or second favourites for at least six races - and would do nothing for the subplot to the meeting.

The one thing so far missing from Nicholls' CV is a trainers' title. For the past seven years he has finished runner-up to Martin Pipe, most recently 10 months ago when his horses earned more than £2.5m and he lost out to the 15-times champion by £50,000 on the final day of the season. He goes to Cheltenham more than £500,000 clear, but there are purses of £2.87m available over the four days. He claims that, in leaderboard terms, second does not necessarily suck, but not wholly convincingly.

"The title is not the most important thing," he said. "I am running a business and I tend to ask myself if being champion trainer would make the slightest difference to the success and promotion of my business. And the answer is no. I don't think it would bring me a single new owner. We don't seem to do too badly as runner-up; last year we earned more than Sir Michael Stoute did as champion on the Flat.

"But yes, I suppose it would be nice to win it once and, particularly, it would be good for those in the yard. No one really likes finishing second."

While Nicholls is unlikely to be reserving much sympathy for Pipe's current unaccustomed situation as underdog, there will be understanding. A bug has been hovering over Nicholashayne for much of the season, whereas the Manor Farm inmates have been in rude health and strength, pounding up the famous aerobically challenging all-weather training strip that rises 220 feet in just under five furlongs.

Nicholls started with 12 horses at his present base after answering a newspaper ad for a trainer placed by his still-landlord Paul Barber and, ironically, it was Pipe who showed him the way forward. "I was still a jockey when he started," he said, "and I knew from riding against his horses that the reason they were winning so much was because they were so much fitter than everyone else's. As soon as I came here and saw that gallop I knew it was what I wanted. It's like the north face of the Eiger."

Nicholls is backed up by a string of wealthy patrons - men like Barber, owner of the yard's 1999 Gold Cup winner See More Business, Graham Roach, John Hales, Andy Stewart, Clive Smith - to supply his ammunition and a top-class team in the yard, headed by Clifford Baker, to help prime it. The 20 missiles heading for Cheltenham are a formidable barrage, among them Kauto Star, Denman, Noland, Cornish Rebel, Napolitain, Andreas and Kicks For Free.

It's a conveyor belt of talent, but not a treadmill. The pursuit of goals puts the glint in Nicholls' eye. "Right now, everyone is excited and nervous in equal measure," he said, "and I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing."

WHAT'S IN A NAME? QUITE A LOT ACTUALLY

O'Muircheartaigh

(Supreme Novices Hurdle, Tuesday): The six-year-old's owner, the trainer Edward O'Grady's mother Mary, is a fan of Michael O'Muircheartaigh, an Irish broadcaster who is legendary in the world of Gaelic football. Likely to give the Cheltenham commentator nightmares; the pronunciation is O'Murrahertig.

Darkness

(Royal & SunAlliance Chase, Wednesday): Spot the musical connection; Darkness is owned by the Lloyd-Webbers. His name was a mistake, though, after a muddle with the registration forms. A nearly-black gelding, who has since died, should have been the heavy metal rock band and this bright chestnut The Grocer's Curate.

Strangely Brown

(World Hurdle, Thursday): In the final episode of the television series Blackadder Goes Forth, George is lamenting the various fates of his Cambridge chums, the Trinity Tiddlers, including Jacko, the Badger, Sticky, the Gubber, Titch and Mr Floppy. Bumfluff copped a packet at Gallipoli with the Aussies, along with Drippy and Strangely Brown.

Black Jack Ketchum

(Brit Insurance Novices Hurdle, Friday): Once a member of Butch Cassidy's Hole In The Wall gang, Black Jack Ketchum was one of the last outlaws of the Wild West. He eventually met his end in 1901 on the gallows in Clayton, New Mexico, with the reputed words: "I'll be in hell before you've finished breakfast, boys!"

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