The Evening Standard

Picture the scene. Sir Alex Ferguson and Paul Nicholls had just met and they are driving back from Cheltenham to Nicholls’s yard in Ditcheat. The weather is foul ,which is why they are in the Audi and not a helicopter, and Sir Alex is comparing football to horseracing.

Two years later Nicholls has a precise recall of a conversation during what he considers the most memorable car ride of his life. For all the differences, Sir Alex told him, their jobs are awfully similar – he has a squad of players and Nicholls a squad of horses: “The only difference is you have got a lot of owners to answer to, I have one.”

Nicholls has had his share of difficult owners but it is the comparison between footballers and horses that is alluring. We are sitting on stools in a kitchen next to the office in the champion trainer’s stable looking out across the yard at his horses.

Box One: Kauto Star, the only horse to regain the Cheltenham Gold Cup; Box Two: Denman, who beat Kauto in the 2008 Gold Cup and came second to him this year.

Nicholls has a sip of the steaming cup of coffee his assistant Sarah West has just placed before him, then says: “Yeah, Kauto Star would be Wayne Rooney, all class. Denman, half and half, maybe Rio Ferdinand.”

It would be easy to dismiss Sir Alex’s comparison of footballers with horses as a bit of a party piece. But there is much between the two men – Sir Alex has written a foreword to Nicholls’s autobiography, Lucky Break – to suggest that this man, champion trainer four seasons in a row and a four-time Gold Cup winner, is becoming the Ferguson of the National Hunt.

Like Ferguson, Nicholls, 47, is self-made, the son and grandson of policemen, with a career marked by huge struggles with rivals, in particular Martin Pipe, that Sir Alex would recognise.

As a jockey Nicholls rode for Pipe and admits he learnt from him the importance of having fit horses but even now, 10 years after the 1998 Gold Cup, he wishes he had assaulted Pipe at the end of that day’s race.

Even before the event, Nicholls had been seething because Pipe had poached Tony McCoy to ride for him after consistently denying any such intention. Then, in the Gold Cup, McCoy on Cyborgo swerved across Nicholls’s See More Business, the horse that he felt might break his Gold Cup duck, carrying it out of the race, in an incident later deemed an accident.

At the end of the race as he went to the chute where the horses come in, he saw Pipe’s “foxy face” and this set Nicholls off. Catching up with him he told him, “I’ll wipe that f*****g smile off your face if it is the last thing I do.” He was about to hit him when others intervened.

But, as Nicholls recalls in his book, “Frankly, I was in the mood for violence and part of me still wishes I’d clocked Pipe”.

It’s an understandable feeling given that on the morning Nicholls finally beat Pipe to become champion trainer for the first time, Pipe went on television to announce his retirement, an unforgivable example of his old competitor raining on Nicholls’s parade.

So, surely, Nicholls’s great ambition must be to beat Pipe’s record of 15 champion trainer titles?

Nicholls dismisses the thought, he said: “No, not at all. You tell a lie if you say you didn’t like to beat a record. But I get more pleasure winning the Gold Cup than any championship. For winning the trainers’ title you get a pat on the back and a brass bar.

“That has no comparison with the feeling you get from winning big races. I wouldn’t care if I didn’t win another trainer championship if we keep winning those big races.” With Pipe’s retirement there is no longer the venom in the relationship and he gets on better with his son David. But the desire to be the best in the land still drives Nicholls and has, in fact, caused him family turmoil.

“My obsession with racing has cost me two marriages,” said Nicholls, who now lives with Georgie Brown, who has borne him a daughter, Olivia. A feisty character, he quickly corrects me when I say he has been champion trainer three times not four and is not afraid to set out his world view of National Hunt racing. This includes classifying Kauto Star as the greatest chaser since Arkle (he still needs to win a third Gold Cup to match Arkle’s record).

Nicholls sees the Gold Cup as the ultimate test for jumpers, which rules out Red Rum who never won it, and he rates Ruby Walsh, his stable jockey, as one of the greatest in jump history.Nicholls is also certain that National Hunt racing has never had it so good.

He added: “Jumping is having a golden time at the moment. It is very popular, full of good guys and very, very straight.”

This last claim may seem extraordinary given in his autobiography he confessed that “cheating became second nature to me”. But this, he clarifies, is not against the punter.

The cheating he is talking about is when, as an overweight jockey, he took pills to keep his weight down or fiddled the scales at a weigh-in. This, he argues, makes no difference to the outcome of a race.

He admits that betting in sport means “there is always suspicion that there can be room for deceit”. And it is worsened by allowing punters to bet to lose, a form of betting which worries him greatly. But despite this he is sure “racing is 110 per cent clean”. Only once in his career was Nicholls asked to fix a race. That was in March 1983 at Taunton when trainer Mark Stephens asked Nicholls to pull the favourite Carflax. Nicholls’s answer was to win by 15 lengths. “No owner has ever come to me and said: ‘Paul, pull a horse.’ They’d know what answer they’d get,” argues Nicholls. “It might have happened years ago but to my knowledge it never happens any more.”

After the 6 May meeting at Huntingdon when Predateur, the favourite from Nicholls’s stable, did not win there was media talk about an investigation but Nicholls dismisses this as a journalists’ tale. The horse is what he calls “just a ‘bridle’ horse which lets you down. It happens from time to time”.

But even if we accept no one in racing ever pulls a horse, what about the 2008 Gold Cup, when Nicholls had one, two, three: Denman, Kauto Star and Neptune Collonges, one of the proudest moments of his career. Could the order have been organised before the race?

“It’s impossible to tinker with results because every horse you run, you run on its merits,” said Nicholls. “I don’t need to tell a jockey to win because I know my lads. What you do is discuss how they are going to achieve the best result for that horse.”

Not that Nicholls has much time for punters. “Let’s get it right. I am not training horses for punters, I am training horses because it is a business.”

Nicholls does not have a betting account. He claimed: “I don’t really understand betting,” although he did bet on Kauto Star this year and won £42,000. However, his defence of racing’s integrity is heavily qualified, he is only talking of jumps. Flat racing, he confesses, is foreign territory to him.

His disclaimer is important because it is the flat that has produced the betting scandals, including an unsuccessful court case against Kieren Fallon.

And in making this disclaimer Nicholls also cleverly highlights flat racing’s problems, which are so huge that the Jockey Club have undertaken an extensive rebranding exercise.

We were meeting the weekend after Sea The Stars’ win in the Arc. It was one of the rare flat races Nicholls watched. “Sea the Stars is fantastic but the public won’t see him again. He has gone to stud just like all three-year-olds.

“The public can’t relate to flat horses. In jumping the horses do the talking, the public relate to them. At the end of the year a horse like Kauto Star does not go to stud but carries on. People love to see them run.”

More than that, Nicholls sees jump racing as more transparent. He added: “Trainers and jockeys are more open, more people from all walks of life are attracted to it and jump racing, unlike the flat, is still a sport.”

This, he says, has enabled it to do the impossible: defy the recession. “I have as many horses now as I have ever had, if not a few more.”

Despite this Nicholls is always on the lookout for new owners and as I leave he gives me his brochure and suggests I become part of a syndicate. The cost: a mere £4,000.

I am tempted by the thought of rubbing shoulders with great owners like Clive Smith, who described winning the Gold Cup with Kauto Star as a life changing experience, then realise it would eat into my daughter’s university costs and politely decline.

* Lucky Break by Paul Nicholls, Orion £20.


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