A man as helplessly competitive as Paul Nicholls will always find it difficult to match his tone and demeanour to the sort of formulae routinely deployed by trainers immediately after disappointment in a big race. In shrugging that he must keep defeat in proportion, that he lives to fight another day, he almost seems to be trying to persuade himself. Since a chastening week at Cheltenham, however, Nicholls has endured a crisis that guarantees he will mean every such word.
Yesterday the champion trainer revealed that he had spent the weekend after the Festival in desperate anxiety over the health of his infant daughter.
"Cheltenham was obviously trying, but the last few days have put racing into perspective," he said. "My one-year-old daughter, Zara, has been very ill. She was taken into hospital on Saturday morning, and released later that evening. But on Sunday morning we had to get the ambulance out again, as she took a turn for the worse. It was touch-and-go for a while."
Writing in his Betfair blog, Nicholls was relieved to report that his little girl was "a bit better" yesterday. She will remain in hospital for a while, however, and it is known only that she has probably been suffering from some virus. Nicholls himself had run a fever the weekend before the Festival, failing to get out of bed for the first time in his training career on the Sunday, and clearly had a chest infection at the meeting.
"Zara's illness certainly put Cheltenham disappointments, and Kauto Star pulling up, into perspective," he said. "Everyone knows how committed I am to my work, but it doesn't really need saying that my family will always come first. So you will forgive me, at this time, if I don't get too downbeat about Cheltenham, or Kauto Star overstretching himself jumping the water and pulling up in the Gold Cup."
Not for the first time, however, he found himself cautioning people against any assumptions about the veteran champion's future. At the end of last season, Nicholls was vexed by calls for Kauto Star to be retired, and took due satisfaction in bringing him back for top-class wins at Haydock and Kempton. The horse had taken a schooling fall three weeks before the Gold Cup, and Nicholls yesterday re-iterated that he "just ran out of time" and that essentially he remains in fine fettle.
"We will canter him away, rough him off for the summer and see where we stand when he comes back in," he said. "Any talk of retirement is very premature. Clive [Smith, Kauto Star's owner] and I haven't even discussed it, and I dare say we won't in any great detail until Kauto comes back in, in July. This season told everyone not to be so hasty in writing him off."
Nicholls conceded that even winning both the feature hurdle races with Rock On Ruby and Big Buck's was insufficient to redress an exasperating Festival. The Champion Hurdler is trained at a separate, satellite stable, while the latter continues to make his own rules. For the rest of the Ditcheat team, which contrived only a few supporting roles between them, "it was a week where anything that could go wrong, did go wrong". Nicholls suspects that many of his entries had not shaken off the effects of a recent bout of coughing in the yard.
In contrast, it was a week of unprecedented success for Nicky Henderson, who has now seized the initiative in the trainers' championship. "We have lost our lead to Nicky, who had an unbelievable Festival," Nicholls said. "We are about £9,000 behind, but will now regroup. Nicky may be 1-3 to win the title but we aren't giving up yet, and go to Aintree and Ayr with a strong, and fresh, team of horses. Rock On Ruby and Zarkandar could both go to Liverpool.
"In hindsight, Zarkandar could have been ridden closer to the pace in the Champion Hurdle but he finished strongly into fifth, probably running a career-best, and a longer trip will suit."
Chris McGrath's Nap: How's My Friend (4.0 Exeter)
Has been dropped 5lbs for failing to stay a marathon trip last time and, with a tongue-tie fitted, can fulfil the promise of several other starts previously this season.
Next Best: Mediterranean Sea (4.50 Southwell)
Fine record on this surface and pulled miles clear of the rest against a flourishing rival on her last visit.
Where the money's going: Betfred have cut Camelot to 9-4 from 3-1 for the Qipco 2,000 Guineas after taking a bet of £100,000 in a Rochdale shop yesterday. Their chairman, Fred Done, was happy to lay the bet: "History is littered with impressive juveniles who fail to step up to the mark in their Classic season."