H&H interview: Champion racehorse trainer Paul Nicholls *H&H Plus*

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  • The reigning champion trainer tells Martha Terry about his big-race contenders, a reformed tearaway and why Bryony Frost might become the first woman to win the Grand National

    There’s a hallowed selection of boxes on the right as you enter Paul Nicholls’ yard, which is built halfway up a hill on a dairy farm in the Mendips, Somerset. The stable doors are adorned with green plaques, denoting previous incumbents’ Grade One successes. A whole wall is dedicated to the exploits of Kauto Star who, among his 16 Grade One wins, landed two Gold Cups and five King Georges just over a decade ago.

    “At one point, we had these five boxes filled with Denman, Kauto Star, Master Minded, Big Buck’s and Neptune Collonges,” says Paul, reeling off the names of his former stars. “That could never happen again, but the funny thing about these boxes is that we don’t purposefully put the best horses in them but the biggest horses, because they are the biggest boxes. There’s obviously a correlation between th biggest horses winning the top races.”


    Paul heads over to “Master Minded’s box” — the 2008 and 2009 champion chaser — where the latest Nicholls star, Clan Des Obeaux, is contentedly munching on his hay. The 17hh Clan — like previous members of this stable block, Kauto Star, See More Business and Silviniaco Conti — is a dual King George winner. He hacked up in this season’s renewal, trouncing his stablemate Cyrname by 21 lengths. Next stop, the Gold Cup.

    “He’s in seriously good order and goes to Cheltenham with an outstanding chance,” says Paul of the eight-year-old. “They said it was the hottest King George for years and he showed how much he’s improved. Clifford [Baker, head lad] thinks he’s 10lb better than last season. I think he’s under-rated. One day we’ll hit the jackpot with him.”

    Paul points to a gap among Master Minded’s plaques and laughs: “There’s space for a Gold Cup one here.”

    ‘Best result of the day’

    Three months ago, thanks to lowering Altior’s colours for the first time in his jumping career, Johnny de la Hey’s Cyrname was the buzz horse at Ditcheat, the highest-rated chaser in training. For comparison, Clan is only 12th on that list. Favourite for the King George, the Nickname-sired Cyrname didn’t run with his usual panache in finishing runner-up, before running a stinker when odds-on favourite in the Betfair Chase at Ascot two weeks ago. He suffered a tired fall at the last and the screens went up. Marvellously, he emerged unscathed to a huge roar from the crowd — with Paul quipping, “That’s the best result of the day.”

    Paul believes there may be a physical problem afflicting his star, acknowledging the race with Altior took its toll.

    “We are learning that Cyrname puts so much into his races that it takes him time to get over them,” he says. “Clan was on fire in the King George, but I don’t think Cyrname was quite right. He’s not a strong, heavy horse, like a Denman — he’s light and a bit fragile. Something’s missing which I can’t put my finger on, but we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

    The reason Paul says he’s “still learning” about Cyrname is because until this season, the eight-year-old was “nearly untrainable”.

    “He used to be such a tearaway that even 18 months ago the only thing we could do with him was go up the hill [Paul’s famously steep gallop] because you couldn’t stop him anywhere else,” says Paul. “Now he’s relaxed with age, he’s much easier to get fit.”

    Besides this stiff four-furlong uphill gallop, Paul has three other gallops at his Manor Farm Stables, in the heart of Blackmore Vale hunting country. There’s a flat five-furlong one, which Paul uses for short, sharp bursts, and two 400m circuits, one on deep sand and the other on sand and fibre. There’s also a boarded outdoor arena, where the horses often do their schooling over jumps.

    The main 80-box yard is workmanlike, rather than classically immaculate, with higgledy-piggledy pockets of stables dotted around. The vibe is relaxed and the horses are all alert, friendly and inquisitive, nuzzling the lads and any visitors who pass their box. It was a surprise to see the horses without exercise sheets on a blustery February morning, but Paul’s attention to detail is consummate. He has even resurfaced the steep road outside the yard with non-slip tarmac so his horses can reach the gallops in comfort, and has his own gritting machine and snowplough.

    Young hopes

    Stabled next door to Cyrname is Paul’s latest young hope, the De la Heys’ Pic D’Orhy, who shot to prominence as the 33/1 winner of the £155,000 Betfair Hurdle at Newbury a couple of weeks ago. Paul beams as he introduces him: “I’ve always thought a lot of him and loved his model, and you can see why; he’s only five years old and what a smashing chasing type of horse he’ll be for the future.”

    The French-bred’s recent win has prompted talk for the Champion Hurdle — for which he’d need to be supplemented by 4 March.

    “I wish I’d put him in the Champion now, but hindsight is a wonderful thing,” he says. “I’m in no hurry with him.”

    If Pic D’Orhy does swerve towards Cheltenham, he’ll join several other Ditcheat contenders with chances besides Clan, such as Politologue and Dynamite Dollars in the Champion Chase, and the new Triumph favourite, Solo, an easy winner last weekend.

    Cyrname won’t be lining up at the Festival, or possibly anywhere else this season — Paul wants to “go back to the drawing board” with this top-rated chaser.

    The diminutive Frodon may have taken second billing to Clan and Cyrname this season, though Bryony Frost called him “Pegasus” after becoming the first woman to ride a Grade One winner over fences at the Cheltenham Festival. Frodon is Clan’s galloping partner but is likely to leave the Gold Cup to his mate in a bid to recapture the Ryanair he won last year. After a sticky start to this season for Frodon, Paul believes he has this son of Nickname right back on track with a Grade Two win last month.

    “He had really bad ulcers, but we’ve sorted them out and he’s back,” he says.

    Perhaps even more excitingly for Bryony is the prospect of yet another Nickname son, Yala Enki, Paul’s major hope for the Grand National, who finished third in a trial at Haydock two weekends ago. The pair won a 3½-mile handicap chase in heavy ground last month, so will relish the distance. Paul likens the 10-year-old to his sole Grand National winner.

    “Yala Enki’s like Neptune Collonges in that he’s a real stayer with a touch of class,” he says. “Bryony rides him well — she suits him. I’m still learning about him and I think we can get him better than we’ve had him.”

    The heady days of Kauto Star and Denman may be long gone, but those green plaques keep trickling in. As we reach the crux of the season, several new stars are being primed to live up to their predecessors’ achievements. Paul’s been champion trainer 11 times already, and is breathing down Nicky Henderson’s neck in his efforts to defend his title.

    “It always ends up going to the last day and I’m sure it will be the same this year,” Paul smiles. “It’s a challenge we always relish.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 27 February 2020