London Evening Standard
Paul Nicholls is aware Cheltenham could decide whether he claims his 10th champion jump trainers’ title.
Nicholls’s winnings of £1.64million this season leave him £466,000 ahead of his nearest rival, Philip Hobbs, but the man the Somerset trainer fears most is Willie Mullins.
The Irishman has never won the title and is 17th in the table, £1.2m adrift of the leader.
However, there is £4.1m on offer at this week’s Festival and Nicholls is sure a significant slice of that will be heading to Mullins, who claimed a record eight wins last year to be crowned Cheltenham champion trainer.
“Willie is my biggest danger in the trainers’ championship,” says Nicholls. “He’s a certainty to be champion trainer at Cheltenham. If he won all the big races, he could come out of the Festival in a very good position, which would make an interesting end of the season.”
It’s clear the bookmakers expect Mullins to make up ground as he is 1-20 to retain his Cheltenham crown while Nicholls is 25-1.
“I should be 100-1,” says Nicholls with a laugh. “I won’t win the Cheltenham title this year. If we have a winner or two great [he had three last year], but this year we will struggle, we haven’t got our strongest team. Willie Mullins will be nearly impossible to beat. He could have four winners on the first day starting with the first race, the Supreme Novice, and then the Champion Hurdle.
“Willie has the best horses without a shadow of a doubt, an awesome team. It’s like in football — why has a certain team got the best squad of players: because they have bought well and he’s been buying well. So we have all got to pull our fingers out and try and find horses to beat him.”
Until three years ago Nicholls and Mullins shared a link in that they both used Ruby Walsh.
NICHOLLS PICKS THE HORSES TO WATCH
I think Willie Mullins’ Douvan will win the Arkle and another Mullins horse, Min, has a chance in the Supreme Novice Hurdle. Nicky Henderson has got two really good horses in there called Altior and Buveur D’air. Min has got a big reputation, but I think Altior will go well. There’s a lot of talk about Annie Power in the Champion Hurdle but she’s had problems, so I’m not sure.
In the Champion Chase I think Un De Sceaux, another of Mullins’ horses, is the one we have got to beat.
In the World Hurdle, a horse I’m so impressed with is Thistlecrack. Trained in Somerset by Colin Tizzard, he’s the one to beat without a doubt.
In the Gold Cup, I’d really like to see Tizzard’s Cue Card win. He’s a good horse, he won the King George at Kempton, but if Mullins’ Vautour runs, that might be another one to watch.
However, the County Kildare jockey then decided he would ride only for his compatriot, leaving Nicholls to select his new No1 jockey.
Nicholls initially chose Daryl Jacob before turning to Sam Twiston-Davies, then 21, to lead the team.
He says: “Sam is not in Ruby’s class. But Ruby was 10 years older than Sam is at the moment.
“Ruby was in his early thirties when he started riding for us. You have to invest for the future.”
“Willie Mullins will be nearly impossible to beat. He has the best horses — an awesome team”
A similar investment for the future is also being made in horses. Nicholls trains 125 and, lapsing into football-manager speak, the Manchester United fan and friend of Sir Alex Ferguson says: “We are in a bit of a transitional period having had all those good stars: Kauto Star, Big Buck’s, Master Minded, Denman.
“They are horses of a lifetime, I don’t know if we will get anything as good as them again.”
Two-time Gold Cup champion Kauto Star was put down last year after suffering pelvis and neck injuries in a fall. The gelding retired from racing in 2012 and a board at Nicholls’s Manor Farm Stables lists Kauto Star’s triumphs.
“He was the greatest of his generation without a doubt. To get another Kauto Star would be in the lap of the gods. But we have one very special one who possibly could be another Kauto Star, Aux Ptits Soins.
“He won at Cheltenham last year, he’s going back for the World Hurdle. But it would be his first run of the season because he’s had three lots of surgery which isn’t ideal. He’s got a huge amount of talent. He’s got to be lucky, injury free.”
Injury has also afflicted Dodging Bullets, last year’s Champion Chase winner, who came back from a splint problem at Newbury last month to finish second in a four-horse field.
Bookmakers immediately lengthened his odds for this year’s Festival but Nicholls argues that only in racing are such instant judgments made.
“Harry, my nephew, rides him every day and we were saying this morning very much what Fergie would say. If that was Wayne Rooney who had had an injury, he’d come back and play 45 minutes, then perhaps 60 minutes, then 90 minutes and build the fitness up over three or four games.
“We expect these horses to go and perform at their best first time out. I always reckon you need 12 weeks to get them fit enough to win which is what he will have before he runs at Cheltenham.
“Dodging Bullets is a good, tough workmanlike horse.
“Last year might have been the cream. Whether he is good enough to win this year, I don’t know.”
Nicholls is as forthright on his other horses. “Probably the World Hurdle is our best chance of winning a Grade 1 with Ptits Soins and Saphir Du Rheu and Dodge in the Championship. You have to be realistic.”
The streak of realism is why he does not have a horse in the Gold Cup. “I haven’t got a horse that is good enough this year and there’s no point in running one just for the sake of it.” He could have run Silviniaco Conti — the favourite last year only to finish seventh — but decided to keep him for Aintree.
“Winning the Gold Cup means more than the trainer’s title. I’ve won four Gold Cups. To win five would equal a Cheltenham record [set by Tom Dreaper].
“That’s what I would dearly love to do more than anything — to produce a horse again that would win the Cheltenham Gold Cup.”
Nicholls’s other long-term aim is to become the most successful trainer in Cheltenham Festival history, a title held by Nicky Henderson with 53 wins.
He is some way down the order with 37 victories and Mullins, who is sure to bag plenty of winners this week, also has 41 successes. “Nicky has been training 13 years longer than me but I have always got in my mind to catch him up one day.”
But with Nicholls expecting Henderson and Mullins to add to their totals that goal must wait.
The priority is to make sure Mullins does not return to Ireland with too much of the Festival prize money.