James Lawton: Paul Nicholls has golden chance to end his nightmare Cheltenham wait
We can only imagine how long ago five years seems to brilliant trainer
As we have seen frequently this week, a few seconds can touch eternity on the rising ground of this ultimate test of the great jumpers and hurdlers. It means we can only imagine how long ago five years seems in the mind of the fabled trainer Paul Nicholls tomorrow.
He goes into the Gold Cup with one last significant chance of ending the nightmare that has come to him in a place which he has so many times had reason to believe he had come to own.
When he sends out Silviniaco Conti to compete with the contenders of his arch-rivals Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins, the men who have thrust him into the margins these last three days, inevitably he must think of the day when his brilliant career seemed to have reached an apex of power.
It was in 2008 when Nicholls produced the second most stunning training performance in the race that is considered the most prestigious in all of National Hunt racing. He delivered the one-two-three finish of Denman, a horse of crushing momentum, the brilliant and beguiling Kauto Star, and Neptune Collonges, a future Grand National champion, and when they came in trailing great clouds of glory he had to feel like the master of everything he surveyed far beyond the boundaries of his Somerset yard. Only one previous trainer of elite steeplechasers, Michael Dickinson, had known such euphoria. He produced the first five past the post in 1983, led in by Bregawn, and Dickinson went off to train in America as a worker of fabulous deeds.
Nicholls, who will be 51 next month, is rooted in England, of course, and he will continue to fight here for the old supremacy he is currently yielding to his 62-year-old rival Henderson, who now has reason to believe he has collected one of the larger of life's winning lottery tickets as he works with the sensational Sprinter Sacre.
Henderson already has three wins this week, two behind the formidably astute Mullins whose plunder on the first day included the Champion Hurdle prize and three exquisite rides from Ruby Walsh, ironically the man who has in the past performed so superbly for Nicholls, especially on the back of Kauto Star.
Tomorrow, Walsh donates his sublime understanding of the local terrain to the cause of Silviniaco Conti, a stylish performer but one who, unusually for a serious Gold Cup contender, has little local history. Walsh will take much of the hazard out of the situation as he attempts to outsmart Barry Geraghty on Bobs Worth, the likely favourite and one of the two runners for the currently tormenting Henderson. The other is former winner Long Run, ridden by amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen.
It is a race stripped of the kudos so recently supplied by Nicholls' withering combination of Kauto Star and Denman but there is a guaranteed fight of great rigour and the tension of a man seeking, like a cornered champion, to land the punch that would wipe away all the accumulated pain of the last few days.
They have not only brought him a rare drought in the Gloucestershire valley he has long considered enchanted but also intensified rancour with the owner of Kauto Star, Clive Smith. When Nicholls was guiding Kauto and Smith's other hugely talented horse Master Minded to a series of spectacular victories, the trainer was bombarded with the plaudits of a grateful owner. Now, with Kauto Star retired and removed from the Nicholls yard, there is a chill in the air whenever they collide.
For Nicholls, the need is for the kind of victory which can lift powerfully a man's spirit – and self-confidence – in a business strewn with potential catastrophe. Henderson only this week was speaking of the terror which comes when you have to guide safely a horse of the quality, and the boisterous character, of a Sprinter Sacre. Henderson spoke of his nagging, daily anxiety of some ambush by fate. For Nicholls, the problem is the dull ache which comes to an ambitious man when he cannot satisfy his appetite for winning.
No doubt it was a subject more than brushed upon when he met one of his owners, Sir Alex Ferguson, this week. Ferguson had the pain of defeat by Real Madrid in the Champions League. Nicholls had the lament of a barren Cheltenham and a loosening of his once relentless grip on the National Hunt trainers' championship. Henderson's flurry of wins here has carried him into the lead and, in his current mood, it is one he must believe he can retain.
Nicholls had to take another blow when his Celestial Halo, a proven performer at Cheltenham but long under the shadow of stablemate Big Buck's, made a hugely promising attack on the Ladbrokes World Hurdle title. If Big Buck's had been fit, he would have been attempting to take his fifth title. Instead, it was Celestial Halo coming so close to delivering Nicholls a reward he normally might have been excused for seeing as quite routine.
Under Daryl Jacob, Celestial Halo made a hugely promising challenge and Nicholls' blood surely quickened before a mistake at the last hurdle and some fading momentum to the post left him two and a half lengths behind Solwhit. Nicholls winced and then said: "If Big Buck's hadn't been around he would have been running over this trip earlier. He's given us a blinding run so I'm really pleased. Now we'll go to Aintree and Punchestown."
First, though, there is tomorrow's return to that edge of desperation which can come to even the most practised winners, the one that invites the most oppressive of questions. Every horseman can mumble it in his sleep, or what passes for sleep: when will I be a winner again?
Paul Nicholls should know the answer deep in his bones and for a few seconds he might have thought he had received it handsomely enough. But, no, it did not survive those seconds when a trainer's life suddenly stands still. Tomorrow, one of the most successful racing has ever known waits again for the ordeal to end.
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