James Lawton: Nicholls finds new lease of life thanks to Sanctuaire

For Nicholls the imperative is to believe an impossible feat is once again hugely feasible
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They don't handicap trainers, which is just as well for the man who stands so far above all his rivals here for the next two days. If they did, by mid-afternoon yesterday Paul Nicholls, who for a third straight year is expected to produce in the Gold Cup tomorrow nothing less than first and second place, would have been carrying a substantial lump of the Cotswolds on his back.

He admitted the pressure when his odds on-favourite, who resembled a champion of champions here two years ago when majestically claiming the Queen Mother Champion Chase, suddenly looked like just another contender failing to make the frame. Nicholls said all the right things after Master Minded had failed to make a record-sharing third defence of the title but his body language was somewhat less unequivocal when he went off to saddle his French-bred Sanctuaire in the fred Winter Juvenile Novices' Handicap Hurdle.

Later, after Sanctuaire came home beautifully under the guidance of a Ruby Walsh, who was becoming the all-time-winning Cheltenham jockey, Nicholls admitted quite how much of an effort it had been to fight the rising tension an hour so earlier.

"I feel a lot, lot better now. It was not a good feeling seeing Master Minded lose like that. In a week like this you do need to feel you have momentum," said Nicholls.

Each race is separate, of course, but in the big stables no one needs to be told the difference between one which is alive and optimistic about every possibility and another which feels the presence of a growing shadow.

In Nicholls' situation, the imperative is to believe for a fourth straight year an impossible feat is once again hugely feasible. The plot is, of course, as familiar as a national folk tale. The trainer's Kauto Star captured the Gold Cup in 2007, then Nicholls produced his own extraordinary challenger in the epically matured Denman. Tomorrow is round three with the score at 1-1 but today Nicholls has two more challengers in Grade One contests, another head turner, Big Buck's in the World Hurdle and Poquelin in the Ryanair Chase.

What was potentially devastating about Master Minded's failure yesterday was its capacity to work against the confidence of a man who won here five times last year – and was expected at least to match the achievement this week.

When Master Minded trailed home fourth behind a Big Zeb ferociously delivered by Barry Geraghty, with Kauto Star's jockey Walsh suffering his own cursed day of defeat, and seeing one of his mounts put down, the question could not have been more guaranteed to challenge the confidence of the man who has made himself the master of Cheltenham.

Were the good times, at a point of maximum pressure, beginning to dwindle? Nicholls threw up his guard, declaring: "We were beaten fair and square. I was concerned about the drying ground over the past couple of days and Ruby said the horse didn't let himself down. I could see that too after a couple of fences. He didn't perform at his best today.

"He is a big, heavy horse and on ground like this something just stops him. He's a hard horse to train, unlike Kauto Star. As Ruby said, the horse has won two Champion Chases – and that's what racing is all about."

It's also about the exhilaration felt by the father of the man who carries so many of Nicholls' hopes – jockey Walsh. When Walsh won on Sanctuaire, he broke the record mark of Cheltenham wins and his father, Ted Walsh, jockey and trainer and one of Ireland's most penetrating race observers, said: "It was a wonderful day for me and my family [his daughter and Ruby's sister Katie was a magnificently driven winner of the National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup]. It was also a great moment for Paul Nicholls when Ruby brought Sanctuaire home.

"When you've done the job of training you know how much something like that means. On a day when everything was fine, Nicholls would have seen that as a good win for a really promising novice.

"But that wasn't how it was today. Nicholls is a great trainer who is operating under such pressure after achieving so much. Today he had a champion beaten and you can be sure he was hurting. Then you saddle a winner suddenly the world is an entirely different place, and this is especially so at Cheltenham, where winning is so tough." Walsh was a great friend of the late trainer John Mulhern, who is being buried in Ireland today. Mulhern got the only Irish wins at Cheltenham in 1987 and 1988 with the hurdler Galmoy and he recently told Walsh: "I would like to die in that place." Walsh reports: "I agreed with him."

So too, possibly, would have Paul Nicholls. But not before a horse called Sanctuaire returned the world to its axis at the vital time. He did it with a glorious run over the rising ground – and through a thousand doubts.