WITH a lucky 13th British champion trainer title made official today at Sandown, it might seem odd to make something of Paul Nicholls not playing the poor mouth.
But the figures 23-5 (Ireland-Britain) from Cheltenham 2021 created an earthquake of seismic proportions, 10 on the Richter Scale. The aftershock is continuing, even though Prestbury Park was nowhere near the same bloodbath 12 months later.
It was 11-10 to Ireland over the hosts after three days last March only for a whitewash to make it 18-10 at the final count this time around. The four championship races were exported once more but Nicholls is calm about it all and sanguine about the future.
For the master of Manor Farm in the verdant Somerset parish of Ditcheat, the reaction has been alarmist. It comes down to where the best horses are housed and nothing else, and he looks forward to getting into the trenches to fight for that quality. The British programme doesn’t need to be ripped up on the back of what he considers insufficient evidence.
He also expresses himself to be mystified by newspaper reports from last year that a British trainer or trainers had paid a private investigator to look into the possibility of some Irish trainers gaining an edge by doping.
Nicholls celebrated his 60th birthday last Sunday but remains as hungry as ever to break new records. His ability to pick a target for a particular horse has long been illustrated in Ireland, where he has saddled 28 winners since Joe Tizzard and Calling Wild bagged the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting in 1998.
Since then, Down Royal has been a particular happy hunting ground, where dual Cheltenham Gold Cup and five-time King George VI Chase winner Kauto Star returned from two raids with victory in the Champion Chase.
Another Gold Cup star Denman, future Grand National hero Neptune Collonges, What A Friend and Tidal Bay landed what is now the Savills Chase and Oslot secured the Galway Hurdle spoils.
The 2008-2009 season was the high-water mark in terms of Irish raids, when he even sent over Dear Villez to win the Munster National at Limerick on the way to registering seven victories.
Punchestown has been good to him too, Le Roi Miguel providing a first winner under long-time ally Ruby Walsh in what was then the Swordlestown Cup Novice Chase over two miles. Master Minded, Neptune Collonges and Twist Magic were others to prevail at the end-of-term festival.
Last year, he left with two winners, Clan Des Obeaux and Bob An Co and while injury rules the latter out of a return, the former is on target for a bid to complete the Aintree-Punchestown ‘Double Double’.
Daragh Ó Conchúir (DÓC): There were some ups and downs but you’re champion trainer again. How would you categorise the season?
Paul Nicholls (PN): “It’s a good year. We’ve nearly trained 140 winners, £2.8 million in prize money. It’s a good season. Five Grade 1s (in Britain) plus Frodon in Down Royal. It’s a great season with the horses we got. The idea is to get the best out of what you’ve got on your team and I think that’s what we’ve done.
“We were a bit quiet in January, February, March, more so than I’d have liked. I don’t know why. It’s something we couldn’t put our finger on but now they’re flying again – five winners this week so far (Wednesday). I’m thrilled to be champion trainer again.”
DÓC: You were 60 on Sunday. Are you one for taking stock?
PN: “We’ve got a good team, got no intention of slowing down, love what we do; just as enthusiastic as ever. There’s a few little milestones I’d like. I’d love to train 4,000 British jump winners. So far no one’s done that jumping. That would be a great goal. If we could get to Martin (Pipe)’s 15 championships, that would be great but that’s gonna get harder. There’s some good younger fellas snapping on our feels including Dan (Skelton) – especially Dan.
“But you’ve just gotta keep working away and trying to produce results. Run the horses in the right races, win as many as you can for your owners. Do the best you can for your owners – that’s why they’re paying you.”
DÓC: Dan is a former assistant and Harry Derham is going out on his own now. Harry Fry is another who has gone on from Manor Farm to do great things. You’re creating a lot of your opposition but it’s a testament to your modus operandi.
PN: “Christian (Williams) was here, Sam Thomas was here, Anthony Honeyball, Jamie Snowden, Harry Fry, Dan Skelton and Harry’s going. Hopefully they’ve been taught properly but they’ve become a pain in the ass! But there we are.
“We’ve got a new team now. Charlie Davies is taking over Harry Derham’s job. Conor Houlihan (from Dungarvan and brother of Sean and Niall) is taking over Charlie’s job. We’ve got another good assistant this year, Natalie Parker, who plays a big part.
“So we’ve got a good team, headed by Clifford (Baker), my head lad, and you’re only as good as the team around you and a good set-up, and it works.”
DÓC: Dan said recently that the way racing has evolved, you could never train Kauto Star and Denman now as you did at the time. Is he right and if so, how has it changed?
PN: “You always keep upgrading your facilities. I sometimes wonder how we got those horses as fit as they were first time with the facilities we had at the time. It obviously worked and a lot of those good horses, they can be half-fit and they’ll still win. But we had Denman winning a Hennessy first-time out in those days so we had to do it right.
But we’ve increased the level of facilities which makes it a bit easier now. I wouldn’t mind those horses all over again but they were once-in-a-lifetime horses to be fair.”
DÓC: You’ve always been good at good at picking a race from a distance and having one ready but if anything illustrated that again it was Frodon winning the Champion Chase at Down Royal last October with Bryony Frost. That was great.
PN: “Yeah, that was brilliant. Frodon has probably overperformed that day, to the level of what he’s achieved, to beat Galvin and Minella Indo. That was one of his best, if not his best ever run. Whether he’ll ever do that again, I don’t know. He’s just gone out today (Wednesday) and we’ll have him ready for that again.
“My view was perhaps Minella Indo and some of those better horses who have got big targets down the line aren’t going to be quite as fit than obviously as he was and he’ll be going back there this year as fit as a flea. That’s probably his Gold Cup. It’s good prize money so you’ve got to target those races for those types of horses.”
DÓC: You have been a tremendous supporter of Bryony Frost’s but she really struggled for outside rides in the past season as the Robbie Dunne bullying case unfolded. Are you disappointed by that?
PN: “It’s not for me to be disappointed because she’s in her own profession… she rides for us behind Harry (Cobden) and that’s always been the case. Neil King’s used her and Lucy Wadham’s used her. There’s plenty of people have used her but she has had a quiet season. I suppose with all the hassle that’s been going on that’s been understandable but hopefully next season, you’ll see her put all that behind her and keep going forward. She’s a part of our team and everyone knows she rides for us when Harry is not available.
“And Harry’s a brilliant jockey. He’s improving all the time. He’s getting better and better. Lorcan Williams is waiting in the wings to pounce when needed. We’ve got a good team.”
DÓC: You have a great record at Punchestown, and with your brace last year, there were four British-trained winners. That’s great for the festival and nice to show it can be done.
PN: “Exactly. We always felt that would suit Clan and that’s why he’s going back again this year. The race suits him and the track suits him. It’s a waste of time running him around Cheltenham nowadays ‘cos he hates it, as Silviniaco Conti did.
“It was a pleasure to go out there last year and they both won. And then Frodon winning. But you’ve gotta be selective. There’s no point going over there thinking they’re all gonna win. That’s what I’ve done this season, I’ve been selective with a lot of them.
“In some quarters I get plenty of criticism for not running horses at Cheltenham but there’s not point running if they’re not going to win. The only person who knows the horses is the trainer. My God, if I had horses like Kauto and Denman and Master Minded, Big Buck’s, Neptune Collonges and all them lads again, I’d be running them around Cheltenham, don’t worry about that!”
DÓC: It’s easy to talk about sportsmanship when you aren’t emptying your wallet to buy horses and have them trained. Top-level sport is about winning.
PN: “Owners wanna go where they can win. They wanna be competitive. That’s why they’re in it. They love the game but wanna be competitive. You don’t wanna go somewhere where everybody is, just for a day out. You’ve got to try get the best out of those horses in the right races on the right day.”
DÓC: Do you enjoy coming to Ireland?
PN: “I love it. We’ve had great success at Punchestown, at Leopardstown, at Galway, different places. We absolutely love coming over. I’m really looking forward to next week. We’re always made very welcome. In the future, maybe we’ll have even more to come. If we have the right ones, we’ll be there.”
DÓC: How has Clan Des Obeaux been since winning the Betway Bowl at Aintree? He was very tough.
PN: “He was good, yeah. He idled a bit in front. He did it nicely, probably a career best for him, the horses he beat. If he reproduces that sort of form on the day, I’m sure he’ll run well again. He did have a hard race, there’s no doubt about that. I think he had a harder race than last year ‘cos he hosed in last year but it was a lesser contest. He seems to have bounced back well. He hasn’t had a lot of racing. He’s good this time of year and hopefully he’s in good shape.”
DÓC: What about the whole Irish-British comparison right now? Is it a cycle or something that needs to be addressed?
"You can’t stand still and live on the past. You’ve gotta keep trying to look for the good one.
PN: “Things go in cycles. You go back to 2007, 2008. We won the Gold Cup in 2007, 8 and 9. I had all those wonderful horses, winning nearly every race at Cheltenham and I had the best team then. It’s like any sport, it goes in cycles. At the moment, the Irish have the best team. There’s no point stressing about it.
“We’ve just got to perhaps improve our buying power but I’ve been buying some lovely horses and I’m getting more and more patient with them and those horses will come through over the next few years.”
DÓC: Do you have to source owners as much as horses? Patrick Mullins spoke this week about that being a key element of his father, Willie’s success.
PN: “We’re limited on the number we can train but you look after your good clients and the people that have been loyal to you and stay with you. I’ve got some lovely people that buy nice horses so you just stick with those. And it works well. I couldn’t get any bigger, I don’t want to get any bigger. It suits us how we do things. I’ve had 46 winners at Cheltenham over the years, you know? If someone had told me that one day, I’d have trained nearly 50 winners at Cheltenham and four Gold Cups, you’d be thinking, ‘Wow! You’re an idiot!’
“So you just do the best you can and keep on. I’ve got no intention of changing how I do things and where we are. When we’ve got the right horses, they’ll compete in the best level. And we’re continually looking the whole time. You can’t stand still and live on the past.
“You’ve gotta keep trying to look for the good one. But I keep looking back and thinking, ‘Christ Almighty, those horses I had were once in a-lifetime.’ If I get another one like them, I’ll be very lucky but we’ll keep looking.”
DÓC: What was made in England about the newspaper reports that a British trainer or trainers had hired a private investigator to look into the possibility of Irish trainers doping?
PN: “(Exasperated exclamation) I didn’t take any notice about it. Nothing was ever substantiated. There’s so much gossip and rumour and stuff going on. Until you’ve got any facts, we’re not going to take any notice of it. I certainly wasn’t aware of any English trainer paying anybody to do any…. I don’t know whether that’s bullshit or not. I certainly haven’t heard of anything.
“Everybody will look and listen and there’s all sorts of rumours and gossip but no one ever substantiates anything, in which case you just turn a blind eye to it.”
DÓC: Will addressing the British programme help?
PN: “If you go back to 2007, 8, 9, 10 or whatever it was when we were winning all the races, no one was ever complaining then. Because we had the best horses. Now it’s gone the other way everyone seems to think our programme’s wrong but actually when I had all the good ones, the programme was good. Kauto ran plenty of times, Master Minded, Neptune, Big Buck’s, all them good horses. Celestial Halo. They all had plenty of options. But just unfortunately we ain’t got them horses at the minute and whatever you do, you can’t just magic them up.”
“It’s like a football team. Look at Man United at the moment, having won all the Premierships. It’s all about having the best players at the right time and it goes in cycles. All I know is then, the programme was fine. No one ever complained because we were winning all the races but that’s because we had the horses (laughs). Now it’s different.
“There’s always place for change but there should never be a kneejerk reaction because of a certain thing. No matter what they put on, if you haven’t got the horses, you’re stuffed aren’t you? Things will change.”
DÓC: Clan Des Obeaux is as good as any horse in the right conditions. It will be good for jump racing and Punchestown if he wins next week.
PN: “I can’t wait. And we will take Frodon back to Down Royal and Bravemansgame might join him for the intermediate chase. We love coming over.”
DÓC: You farmed that particular race for years.
PN: “We did. I think we won seven on the trot. Of late we haven’t had too much but he might just be the one for that next year, you never know.”