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

The Cheltenham Festival

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.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Sport
footballMan City manager would have loved to have signed Argentine
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site on Friday

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
News
i100
Sport
Enner Valencia
footballStriker has enjoyed a rapid rise to fame via winning the title with ‘The Blue Ballet’ in Ecuador
Arts and Entertainment
A top literary agent has compared online giant Amazon to Isis
arts + entsAndrew Wylie has pulled no punches in criticism of Amazon
Arts and Entertainment
Charlie Sheen said he would
tv

Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities