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Champion trainer is ready for Festival battle with Henderson

Evening Standard

You would not have expected Paul Nicholls to stop for anything over the last few weeks as he prepared for jump racing’s annual show stealer, the Cheltenham Festival, which started today.

But, last Tuesday, he did. Taking his cue from Jose Mourinho that the world would stop to watch Real Madrid play Manchester United, the champion trainer travelled from his yard at Ditcheat in deepest Somerset to Old Trafford. He returned mourning for the man whose horses he trains, Sir Alex Ferguson.

“I went there expecting Manchester United to win,” Nicholls tells me. “It was a great match until the sending off [of Nani] ruined it and deprived United of a sure victory.”

But that brief break from his Cheltenham preparations also reinforced Nicholls’s long-held belief that his old friend’s sporting model still holds as much in racing as in football. “You need to do things right,” he says. “It is about having a good team to prepare the horses and the footballers to the very best on any particular day. What you need is to keep rebuilding your squad every year like Sir Alex does.”

We are talking minutes after he has put down the phone to the United boss having decided that Harry The Viking, which Ferguson part-owns, will run on Thursday in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup.

Ferguson is expected at Cheltenham for the race and, while Nicholls says the horse is being run there in preparation for the Grand National, he disagrees with the bookmakers’ opinion that Sir Alex’s 16-1 shot will not be in the mix.

“As long as the ground is good, he will have a chance. I just hope it isn’t too soft. He ran in the Festival last year and was second. So it would be nice to go one better. I’m sure Alex would like to have a winner at Cheltenham. He has a good knowledge of racing, knows exactly what he is doing and enjoys it.”

However Nicholls also knows that, to succeed, you need luck and this makes him reflect ruefully on what happened 12 months ago. “Last year did not go according to plan. We had horses coughing which was not ideal; they were not in good shape. They were not firing.”

Nevertheless he reminds me: “I still won the Champion Hurdle with Rock On Ruby and the World Hurdle with Big Buck’s.”

But what cannot be denied is that last year’s Festival belonged to Nicholls’s great rival, Nicky Henderson. He had seven winners, taking his total to 46 in all and making him the most successful Cheltenham Festival trainer ever.

The two trainers could not be more different. The 50-year-old Nicholls, a self-made man and son and grandson of policemen, could not wait to leave school. In contrast, 62-year-old Henderson is an old Etonian who carries the stamp of the establishment. Cheltenham has a race named after his father, Johnny, and his godfather was Field Marshal Montgomery, Henderson’s father having been aide-de-camp to the victor at El Alamein. Indeed, had Monty had his way, Henderson would have ended up in the army.

Nicholls did arrive at Cheltenham at the head of the trainers’ table, having won £1.8million in prize money. But he can almost feel Henderson’s hot breath on his shoulder with his rival around £220,000 behind.

“Nicky Henderson might have a good Cheltenham and come out on top. He might swallow us up this year.”

Bookies, who expect Henderson to have five winners at the meeting, make him 2-9 to win his first trainers’ championship since the 1986-87 season. Nicholls is 3-1

Losing the title would be galling to Nicholls, having won it every season since wresting it from Martin Pipe in 2005-06. But Nicholls, who admits he is still “very driven”, refuses to concede Cheltenham will decide whether he retains his crown.

“It will play a big part in it but it will not necessarily be a decider. We keep hanging on in there. There is still plenty of racing left —two months of the season including the Grand National.”

The remark about the Grand National is pointed. Until last year, for all his National Hunt success, Nicholls had never won it. “Doing that last year with Neptune Collonges was fantastic,” he says. More so, as the Aintree prize money helped him pip Henderson for the title.

Nicholls is keeping some horses back for Aintree: Irish Saint, Sametegal and Rocky Creek. But he is keen to emphasise that coming to Cheltenham for the first time after winning at Aintree has no bearing on what might happen at the Festival.

“Yes, the Grand National is the people’s race but it is a handicap race and you need a lot of luck. I won it on my 53rd horse and it’ll take probably take 53 more to win it again. And I never look back, I always look forward.”

However, Nicholls’s followers cannot help but notice that, unlike previous years, the racing world is not talking of his great horses which have dominated recent Festivals. There is no Denman, no Big Buck’s, no Master Minded and no Kauto Star. It is Henderson who can now boast of the big names: Sprinter Sacre, favourite in tomorrow’s Queen Mother Champion Chase, and Simonsig in today’s Arkle Challenge Trophy.

“The old boys have done so well but we have nice chances in the big races, some nice runs,” reflects Nicholls. “We have got a nice, new, young team and it is good a lot of them have stepped up to the plate.”

One of the horses which has stepped up to the plate is Zarkandar, Nicholls’s entry for today’s Champion Hurdle with the trainer hopeful of his chances. “Zarkandar has won three out of three races this year.”

Going into the race Nicholls was very aware the horse which gave him his only winner in the blue riband of hurdling, Rock On Ruby, is now being trained by his protege Harry Fry. Zarkander also had to contend this afternoon with the favourite, Willie Mullins’s Hurricane Fly, the winner in 2011, and Henderson’s Grandouet. But Nicholls felt: “I don’t think there is a lot between them, they are four decent horses.”

Friday’s Gold Cup is where Nicholls holds sway, having won it four times, although last year’s experience was very sobering. Then his stable jockey Ruby Walsh pulled up Kauto Star, a horse Nicholls rated so highly he once compared him to Arkle. “One of the greatest horses but he had a fall [on the gallops] three weeks before Cheltenham and he wasn’t right. Ruby did the right thing pulling him up.”

No horse could possibly replace Kauto Star and the one Nicholls is pinning his hopes on has the added problem that his very name gives the trainer nightmares. He freely confesses he has such problems pronouncing Silviniaco Conti he often prefers to call the horse Conti or sing his name to make sure it trips off the tongue. Indeed, this was the only horse misspelled when Nicholls’s yard submitted the list of horses at the start of the 2010-11 season.

The seven-year-old is one of the leading hopefuls for the race and Nicholls is quietly optimistic. “He has won three out of three this year. He is in good form. We’ve got a chance.”

And, while making the usual caveat that he can’t say he’ll win, he is confident enough to say: “We have lots of horses in other races with chances.”

Two in particular he is keen to highlight. “Far West is one of the favourites for the Triumph Hurdle [on Friday] and Sam Winner is favourite for the Pertemps Final [on Thursday].”

INdeed, he rates Sam Winner’s chances so highly that he sees him in the same terms as Big Buck’s which was the nap of Nicholls’s yard for the last four Cheltenhams. “Sam Winner has a big chance in the Pertemps, probably the nap for all of our horses in the Festival.”

Much, of course, will depend on how this unusually wet winter has affected the course. Last week, officials at Cheltenham surprised many by announcing they were covering the track to protect it from severe frost.

But this was a precautionary measure and Nicholls is pleasantly surprised how well the course has recovered from the winter. “It is amazing how things have dried out.”

But, whatever the weather brings, there is one thing Nicholls is certain about: “Cheltenham keeps defying the recession. All the previews were sold out. It is a great four days of racing and shows the popularity of the sport.”

      

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