Racing / Cheltenham Festival: Duke poised to claim rightful title: Richard Edmondson on a trainer near the pinnacle of his profession who may find special cause for celebration in this week's festivities

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FOR David Nicholson, Cheltenham is one big party. As usual for the Gloucestershire trainer, the revelry started on Sunday when the house guests arrived, but when the time comes to stack the plates and wave off the visitors this weekend, the date of Nicholson's 55th birthday, a landmark may have been reached.

If Nicholson, pounds 130,000 ahead in the trainers' championship with 64 winners, enjoys even moderate success at this week's Festival, a first ever jumping title looks certain to be his. With contenders of the calibre of Baydon Star in today's Arkle Trophy, Viking Flagship in tomorrow's Champion Chase and Mysilv in Thursday's Triumph Hurdle, a measure of success seems assured.

It has not always been like this. The former jockey has now been training for over 25 years, but made an impact at Cheltenham only after 18 years of trying when Solar Cloud won the Triumph Hurdle in 1986. 'Everyone still reminds me about that,' he says.

With a sweep of his hand, Nicholson dismisses that wait as a trifle, though mementoes elsewhere suggest it was a relief at the time. On the wall of his new stables at Jackdaws Castle is a framed newspaper collage of the time, outlining Solar Cloud's triumph. Hanging beside it are the racing shoes belonging to the horse, as well as those of Nicholson's other grand servants, Very Promising and his Gold Cup winner, Charter Party.

These tokens show that the first victory mattered for 'the Duke'. Nicholson has been 'the Duke' throughout his racing life. 'I got the nickname after I left school at 15 and came home (to his father's stable),' he explains. 'I suppose I was lording it about the yard a bit about being the ex-public schoolboy and one of the lads said 'look out, here comes the Duke'. It sounds as though he may have been lucky to get away with Duke.

Strangely, though, Nicholson could also be the Duke from the Westerns, with his legs splayed like a peg and rolling gait. These mannerisms and his dress code make Nicholson one of the most easily identifiable figures on the racecourse.

The morning after the Solar Cloud celebrations he was trying to locate his clothes when he noticed he had been wearing red socks. 'Barring two or three occasions, I've worn them to the races ever since,' he says, adding smartly, 'I do change them occasionally.'

This is just part of the regular apparel. The Duke is also rarely without his trilby and one of those ridged sheepskin coats which invariably appear grimy even before the dry- cleaning cellophane has been removed.

But while the clothes have changed little, Nicholson's position in the sport's order has been transformed. From a seasonal total of 39 just five years ago, the trainer is now some way clear of his adversaries. 'He has been very resilient and he has learned,' Peter Scudamore, a former stable jockey, says. 'He has got a very different type of horse these days. He would never have bought a horse off the Flat a few years back, and he's got the combination right now.' This combination is the marriage of Nicholson's powerful owners and the impressive new command centre of Jackdaws Castle, which lies between the Gloucestershire villages of Ford and Temple Guiting.

That this is the realm of the horse is inescapable before the yard is reached. The approach road is potted and compares badly with a parallel all- weather gallop, while a 'Keep Off The Grass' sign protects another strip of land reserved for thoroughbreds.

The administration block is all easy-use pine furniture and hard-wearing carpets, rather like entering the foyer of a new hotel sited in the middle of a roundabout or taking a Sunday wander through an Ikea showroom.

Out in the pastures is a variety of gallops which many, including the champion jockey, Richard Dunwoody, believe is the key to the Duke's new- found omnipotence. It has been claimed that these working grounds are based on those used by the champion trainer, Martin Pipe, and that the Duke has also borrowed some of that man's ideas. But David Nicholson does not like the suggestion that he has ever copied anyone, at anything, and denies his skills are anything but personally developed.

'I have said that if you can't beat them, join them, fine, but I don't know what Martin Pipe does and I've never seen how he works,' he says. 'I think he's had an influence on the basic fitness of the National Hunt horse, but I don't think he started it. I think Michael Dickinson started that.

'I've done my own thing and I train them my way. That means good hay, good oats and plenty of work.'

He also requires hard work of his staff and has composed an image of a stickler for detail and a man who gives, and demands, loyalty. 'He teaches you the right basics, how to do the job properly,' Scudamore says. 'Things like clean shoes and turning up on time, teaching you a bit of discipline.'

Scudamore, like Richard Dunwoody and Adrian Maguire since, was described as the greatest ever jockey by Nicholson, but only during his time with the trainer.

This is part of the Duke's psychology. 'I'm a very loyal person, as anyone who works with me knows, and if I can help someone's ego I'll do that,' he says.

'In whatever sport you're in, if you're doing it full of confidence, you'll go a long way. The successful football managers know how to manage their players, like Alan Ball, the Southampton manager, saying the other day that (Matt) Le Tissier should be playing for England. That's motivation.'

Therefore, when Maguire gets the leg up this week on the Duke's horses, he will do so re- inforced by his boss's assertion that he is the best jockey riding at the moment.

By the end of this week, while he is relaxing with his favoured tumbler of brandy, David Nicholson may also be able to reflect that he himself has reached the pinnacle of his profession.

The magic of Cheltenham, today's other cards and yesterday's results, page 34