To the hordes descending on Cheltenham, it won’t feel like a decade since Celestial Halo came within a neck of completing the greatest heist of all.
The five-year-old was touched off by Punjabi, a 22-1 outsider, in a photo- finish to the Champion Hurdle. Had the outcome gone the other way Paul Nicholls would have captured all four of the Festival’s feature races.
It was the year of Kauto Star and Denman, who had the Gold Cup to themselves on Friday. They were preceded by Master Minded, who strolled away with the Champion Chase on Wednesday, and Big Buck’s, an easy winner of the Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday.
No trainer has ever come close to such plunder. “We were spoilt,” Nicholls recalls. “We were incredibly lucky to have all those horses in one go. Each of them was a horse of a lifetime really.”
It seemed back then as if the golden era would never end, yet it would not survive 12 months. On their returns to Cheltenham, Celestial Halo regressed into fourth place, while Kauto Star and Master Minded were beaten at odds- on. Only Big Buck’s would successfully carry the torch.
It was inevitable that less hedonistic times would settle over Nicholls’ base at Ditcheat, on the edge of the Mendip Hills in Somerset. The man himself knew it, prepared as best he could for it. However, you don’t get to train equine luminaries unless you are driven. And the driven can’t accept second best.
For all that, Nicholls’ achievements remained robust. He has been champion trainer six times in the intervening decade. At the close of this season his prize-money haul will have exceeded £2 million for the 17th consecutive year. He will also have posted his 18th successive century of winners. On February 19, he sent out the 3,000th winner of his career.
We were incredibly lucky to have all those horses in one go
Nicholls is a master at getting the best from the horses he has. His record in valuable handicaps is second to none, yet what was apparent was that he hasn’t been well represented in the defining races. He was short of stars.
That could be about to change. In December he won a tenth King George VI Chase with Clan Des Obeaux, who is now a front-line candidate for the Gold Cup. He has a second string to that bow in Frodon, recent winner of Cheltenham’s Cotswold Chase under Bryony Frost. And he has a herd of young horses for the novice races.
As he puts it: “Cheltenham is exciting for us but it will be even more exciting next year.”
During a time of rebuilding, it’s not just the horses that are new. Back in the golden era Dan Skelton was Nicholls’ assistant and Ruby Walsh the stable jockey.
When Skelton graduated to training he was succeeded by Nicholls’ nephew, Harry Derham, while Walsh’s role has been reprised through Daryl Jacob and Sam Twiston-Davies to Harry Cobden, who shares a youthful zest with the horses he rides.
Yet Nicholls believes he is as well-equipped as he has ever been. Clifford Baker has straddled the decade as head lad. The core facilities at Ditcheat have remained the same, as have the array of gallops, which have been constantly upgraded. And Nicholls still trains in much the same way.
In Nicholls’ estimation the ten-year itch for the next wave of top-class horses has been entirely down to his seed corn – and in particular, the source of it. “We always knew it would be a hell of a job to get anything like those horses again,” he says.
“It takes a long time; they don’t come along just like that. I’d even prepared myself for the possibility that we’d never have those times again, but I feel like we’re getting back to where we were.”
The quest has been complicated by shifting sands. In tandem with bloodstock agents, Nicholls sourced Kauto Star, Master Minded, Big Buck’s and Neptune Collonges, with whom he won the 2012 Grand National, as young horses from France. But the process no longer bears comparison.
“At that time you could wait until the horses had five or six runs in France before you bought them,” Nicholls explains.
“Yes, they were expensive, but it wasn’t a gamble because you knew they were good. They were the best value for money when you consider how much prize-money they won.
“But that has completely changed,” he continues. “Now you’re forced into buying a horse that finished second in a maiden hurdle at Auteuil for £300,000, because if you don’t you’ll be left behind.
“You might then find that the form of that race was worthless. We’ve had a few of those here but it has become so competitive that you can’t afford to wait.
Facility-wise, I don’t think we could do any better than what we have
“I have some owners who will pay plenty of money but you have to find value too. So you have to find another way.
“We have gone back to basics a little bit over the last few years, buying stores for between £60,000 and £100,000. You absolutely have to give these horses time.
“We bought one at auction recently for £190,000 that had finished second in a maiden point. He’s a beautiful horse, and I’m happy with him, but that’s the market for you.
“If you want a winning pointer it will cost you £400,000 – and there’s a lot of them about.”
A series of more subtle changes from ten years ago have also taken root. A legacy of his restless mind, Nicholls forever contemplates little things that can make the difference.
He spends handsomely on his all- weather training strips to achieve the consistency of surface he cherishes: he recently spent £148,000 on resurfacing his five-furlong flat gallop.
“That was just the top layer alone,” he reflects with a grimace. “But that’s what you have to do, and it makes a massive difference.
“We have kept improving the gallop over the years and I’d say we now have it exactly where we want it. Facility-wise, I don’t think we could do any better than what we have.”
Although that has helped to keep the winners churning, Nicholls has always had one eye on the future. He wanted to be prepared for the time when the next wave of quality horseflesh breaks over Manor Farm Stables.
“It can be frustrating,” he says. “You’re putting in as much as you ever have but suddenly you’re not getting as much out.
“But the key is putting things in place to make it happen, to make the magic come back. People see you doing well and have faith in you. That’s important.”
In that ongoing quest Nicholls has come to think of horses as akin to human athletes, tailoring feeding routines to suit. And while he has always espoused the virtues of patience, he is even more wedded to the concept now.
“It did Clan Des Obeaux good to get a little injury [in December 2017],” Nicholls relates. “He had some time off, just like Kauto Star when he had ten months off after he fell at Exeter [in 2005].
“Owners want you to run, but I have realised more and more that patience is the big thing.
The Gold Cup is the pinnacle. It’s great to be involved again
“A few owners have come here and lasted only one year. They are in too much of a hurry; they will never be successful because they won’t give anyone a chance.
“That doesn’t suit me. I want owners who understand you and stick with you.”
Nicholls won three Gold Cups in successive years from 2007 to add to See More Business’ blue riband triumph in 1999. He has accrued 43 Festival successes and would dearly love to win a fifth Gold Cup, which would see him match Tom Dreaper’s record haul.
He describes Clan Des Obeaux’s prospects as first rate. “Having had Kauto Star, Denman and Neptune Collonges, it felt odd not to have a runner in the Gold Cup these last few years,” he says.
“We’ve still had good times but the Gold Cup is the pinnacle, so it’s great to be involved again. I like to think we will be for a few years to come.”
He concedes that Frodon is probably running for place money but fully warrants his chance. He will be a debut Gold Cup ride for Frost, who owes Nicholls plenty for her rise to prominence.
“Sam Twiston-Davies and Harry Cobden have both won on Frodon but Bryony is very well suited to him,” the trainer says.
“I think it’s great to see women jockeys coming to the fore. It brings something different, but as for being champion jockey, I think if you ask Bryony she’d say she is happy as she is, riding big winners on Saturdays.
“It would be hard if she was travelling everywhere for six rides a day, taking those falls, which you have to do if you want to be champion. I’m not sure a woman will do it in my lifetime.
“But people like Bryony’s enthusiasm. She gets a lot of media time, certainly compared to Harry [Cobden], but she keeps winning and keeps yapping. Sometimes she goes over the top, and I tell her that. But everybody loves it.”
They would love it even more if Frodon won the Gold Cup. Frost would corner the headlines but Nicholls would be in heaven. “Irrespective of what happens, and I would dearly love to win it, I’m actually quite proud that we’ve got it all going again,” he says.
“I have had to keep fighting, to be determined, but at the same time be very patient and look to the future. That isn’t an easy thing to do.”
‘I was struggling and felt like chucking it all in’
Paul Nicholls comes across as a man with everything under control. He is self-assured in public, direct in conversation. Black and white never seem to merge into grey.
So it was poignant to hear him relate a dark chapter that tormented him after the glory days of Kauto Star, Denman and Master Minded had drawn to a close. Finding replacements was proving difficult, and when his marriage to Georgie broke down, he was consumed by a mental anguish he felt unable to share with anyone else.
“Nobody knew what I was going through in those three or four years because I couldn’t talk about it,” he relates. “I tried, but I’m probably quite hard to talk to. Then Georgie and I went our separate ways [towards the end of 2016] and it hit me very hard.”
It was the age-old conflict between personal and professional lives, with Nicholls trapped in the vacuum. “I felt very bad about it – and still do,” he says. “Over the years I’ve probably been guilty of putting too much into racing, being too blinkered. Your private life pays when you prioritise the wrong things, which is sad in so many ways.
“To be honest, I actually felt like chucking it all in. The feeling stayed with me for about a week. I was struggling with the pressure, the divorce, all sorts of things as well as keeping the business going. So I bottled it up. I felt I had to bury it to keep going forward. Every morning when you come into the yard you have to be right on it. You can’t afford to let it show.”
Nicholls knows that his single- minded career pursuit is what has delivered ten trainers’ titles and every big race in the book. There could be no other way for a man who detests losing as much as one of his owners, Sir Alex Ferguson. Yet that fierce commitment to winning could not assuage a guilt born of too little time for family life.
I felt I had to bury it to keep going forward
It’s not a subject Nicholls has spoken about publicly before. It didn’t come easily, either, but once out of the bottle, he allowed the genie its head. “I don’t know how much differently I’d do things if it happened again,” he concedes. “I’d definitely prioritise things; I’d give a bit more time to being a dad.
“But Georgie and I are best mates now. We have two lovely girls and we see each other quite a lot, while Megan [Nicholls’ daughter from his second marriage] works here in the yard, which is great.
“I have come through all of that now. I am in a really good place and enjoying it again. It made me learn and think more. I am a bit more relaxed but I am as competitive as ever. The thrill of training a winner makes you feel like a million dollars.”
It’s a cruel dichotomy that fatherhood promotes the very same feeling. Nicholls is not the first to confront it. Nor will he be the last.