Trainer and patron have even more in common, just now, than the mutual ambition that first drew them together. Both Paul Nicholls and Sir Alex Ferguson keep being told that their respective squads need refreshing, yet both are still able to survey the competition from the summit of the table. The champion trainer, like the Manchester United manager, remains in contention for almost all the big trophies as his season approaches its own climax.
There will be no Stan James Champion Hurdle, admittedly, just as Ferguson sits out the Carling Cup final on Sunday; and Nicholls concedes that What A Friend, turned over in Ferguson's red-and-white colours at Newbury last Friday, has now disclosed limitations that divide him from the very best. Even so, with the Cheltenham Festival just three weeks away, he was yesterday able to reprise a familiar ritual by parading to the media some of the most accomplished jumpers of recent years in Kauto Star, Denman, Big Buck's and Master Minded – the latter, for what it may be worth, his choice as best bet of the lot. They were joined, moreover, by several who will be trying to break into the elite in the novice championships. "I read in one of the papers this morning that my subs' bench is very weak," Nicholls said. "But I look at horses like Aiteen Thirtythree and Ghizao, and I wouldn't swap them for anybody else's."
But Nicholls recognises in Ferguson's example the need for ruthless vigilance against complacency; the need to rebuild, even as fresh ribbons are pinned to the chests of loyal veterans. The lead Nicholls retains at the top of the trainers' championship could easily be wiped out by Nicky Henderson on the first afternoon of the Festival. And he acknowledges that Henderson, like Arsène Wenger, has assembled a squad with time on its side. "I suppose some of mine are more like Ryan Giggs," Nicholls said. "Of the up-and-coming types, Nicky has probably got the better team. Obviously if you're competitive, you like to stay top, and it's going to be a bit of a job this time. Last Saturday could prove a bit of a pivotal day, with the prize-money Nicky won, and the cards haven't really gone right for us since January. That's never our month and Nicky had 40-odd winners, which was bound to put him into the driving seat."
Regardless, there will be none of the desperation that disfigured the bitter duels that finally forced Martin Pipe into retirement, five years ago. This is the first time since that anyone has mustered a meaningful challenge to Ditcheat, but Nicholls is candid about the difference. "Nicky and I are mates and, whatever happens, at the end of the day we'll have a drink," he said. What was more, a choice between winning the Gold Cup and the trainers' championship would be "no contest".
His fidelity to Kauto Star is too familiar for any elaboration to be necessary. But while tragedy claimed the star of its youth team at Ascot on Saturday, in Pride Of Dulcote, the stable pins great hopes in precisely such horses as Aiteen Thirtythree and Ghizao – its principal candidates for the RSA Chase and Irish Independent Arkle Trophy respectively. "Ghizao went very nicely in a racecourse gallop with Poquelin yesterday," Nicholls said. "I think he's got an outstanding chance."
Aiteen Thirtythree won by 50 lengths at Newbury last Friday and Nicholls suspects he can help Andy Stewart persuade the horse's other owner, Paul Barber, to press on to the Festival. "Paul has been wondering whether it might come a year too soon," he said. "But Andy's very keen, and I'd say we're winning the argument. This is a gorgeous horse, one of my favourites, a big, scopey type who jumps and gallops. I'm astounded by the progress he has made since last season, when he was looking ordinary, frankly. He's now rated 159, which is 8lb higher than Denman when he won the race, and just 2lb behind Time For Rupert, who's hot favourite. Both Noel Fehily and Nick Scholfield have got off him and said that he felt like one of the nicest they had ever sat on, and I hope they're right. Give him another summer, and I'd like to think we'll be talking about the Gold Cup."
Red carpet unrolled for Ruby's return
Ruby Walsh will be back on the Ditcheat gallops on Monday, for the first time since breaking his leg in November, and Paul Nicholls will be rolling out the red carpet for his No 1 jockey (above). "Ruby's loss has been pivotal, a massive blow," the trainer said. "Things were going well with Noel Fehily, who rides in the same, quiet way, but then he got injured, too. Don't get me wrong, the lads have done well – but they are lads. It's great Ruby will be back in good time for Cheltenham."
* Chris McGrath's Nap San Antonio (2.20 Southwell)
Veteran up another 4lb since finishing second last time, but that run confirmed the impression of a runaway win round here last month that he has discovered a new lease of life on this surface.
* Next best Sweden (3.15 Wetherby)
Flourishing for new trainer, and barely off the bridle to win his first handicap at Ffos Las last time. Initial rating clearly underestimates his potential and he can surely shrug off an 8lb rise.
* One to watch Quel Elite (James Moffatt) started at 100-1 for his debut at Kelso last week but clearly has ability, one of few to get involved from off a steady pace when keeping on well for sixth.
* Where the money's going Bakbenscher is 9-1 from 12-1 with Totesport for the Racing Post Chase at Kempton on Saturday.