Donn's Articles » Paul Nicholls

Paul Nicholls

Clan Des Obeaux was good.  Important.  In so many ways.  For so many reasons.

You could have gone to Sandown.  He would have been favourite or near favourite to win the Bet365 Gold Cup, even off top weight.  Flat track, right-handed, goodish ground, that would have suited Clan well.

Punchestown wasn’t on Clan’s radar until late.  Paul Nicholls actually didn’t put him in the Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup at entry stage.  He reasoned that, if he won at Aintree, they’d have enough cash in the pot to pay the supplementary entry fee for Punchestown. 

He won at Aintree all right.  He blew his rivals away in the Betway Bowl, won by 26 lengths and put up one of the best performances of his life, up there with his two King George wins. 

It was a brave move, going to Punchestown.  Going to Ireland, into the cauldron, an away game, taking on Willie Mullins and Joseph O’Brien on their home turf.  After Cheltenham, you know.  But it was the right race for Clan Des Obeaux, and Paul Nicholls is all about right horse, right race.

“I always felt that Clan would be well suited by that race,” says the trainer.  “He is slightly better right-handed, Punchestown is a little bit like Kempton, whereas he absolutely hates Cheltenham.  We’ve proved that that was a waste of time in the last two years.  But to win at Aintree and then go and win at Punchestown.  That was great.  We really enjoyed that.” 

He watched from home.  He could have gone to Punchestown but, the world being the way the world is these days, it didn’t make sense to go.  He watched every kick of the ball though, every beat.  You see more at home, he says.  It’s more nerve-wracking at home for some reason.  Maybe you feel that you are not in control.  But the fact that you’re not there doesn’t diminish the kick that you get out of it.  The glass of champagne that evening still tasted good.

“A lot of people were cheering for him to win.  The way Cheltenham had gone, it was good to be able to go and do that at Punchestown.  It’s about having the right horse for the right track, Clan doesn’t like Cheltenham, so you’ve got to go where you can win with him.  But it was good to come over and win that big race at Punchestown.  Britain needs Ireland, Ireland needs Britain.  It goes in circles.  You’ve got to have that rivalry.  You’ve got to have things ebbing and flowing.  Otherwise it would get boring.  The reaction from Ireland was very good and very positive, and that was a huge part of it for me.  A lot of Paul Barber’s friends are in Ireland, they all rang him that night.  Ruby called me, lots of people called me.  I think a lot of people enjoyed it.”

Paul Nicholls and Ireland go way back.  It was in February 1988, two and a half months after they had won the Hennessy together and one and a half months after they had won the Welsh Grand National, that he rode Playschool to win the second renewal of the Vincent O’Brien Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown.  Ten years later, he took Calling Wild back to Leopardstown as a trainer and landed the Paddy Power Chase.

Since then, he has plundered some of the top Irish National Hunt prizes, the Savills Chase, the John Durkan Chase, the Galway Plate, the Champion Chase at Down Royal, with his best horses.  Household names like Kauto Star and Denman and Master Minded and Neptune Collonges.  The Punchestown Festival has been particularly fertile.  In 2003 Paul Nicholls won the Swordlestown Cup with Le Roi Miguel and the Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle with Sporazene.  He won the Champion Chase in 2008 and in 2009 with Twist Magic and Master Minded respectively, and he won the Gold Cup in 2007 and 2008 with Neptune Collonges. 

This year, he sent just two horses to Punchestown: Clan Des Obeaux and Bob And Co, who was ridden by his owner David Maxwell to get up and win the Champion Hunters’ Chase by a nose.

“David got unseated off Shantou Flyer about three weeks before Punchestown.  It was probably the best thing that could have happened.  I watched that race again and he was just riding too short.  So I said to him, you’re probably about the same size as Ruby, and if you look at some of Ruby’s videos, he always rides long and deep, sits in behind horses.  Just have a little look and see if you can’t change your way, and do that, because you might find things a bit easier.  So he dropped his girths four holes and it worked.”

Bob And Co was Nicholls’ last winner of the 2020/21 season, the strangest of seasons of course, which started on 1st July instead of 1st May.  Two months shaved off the season, and yet, Paul Nicholls had 176 winners in Britain, more winners than he has ever had in a season since he started training. 

“It’s been a fantastic season really.  To end up like we did at the end of the season was great, but it’s been good all year really.  The only downside was Cheltenham, that was a bit disappointing, we were unlucky not to have a winner, but the horses ran well in the main.”

The season ended with a flourish at Aintree and Sandown and Punchestown.  Monmiral and Clan Des Obeaux and Knappers Hill at Aintree, Frodon and Greaneteen and Scaramanga at Sandown, and Enrilo first past the post in the Bet365 Gold Cup.  He amassed almost £2.5 million in prize money in Britain for his owners last season, a total that saw him crowned champion trainer again, for the 12th time in his career. 

“It’s 24/7, 12 months of the year, this business,” he says.  “It’s not just about one week at Cheltenham.  We all like to have winners at Cheltenham, but I always thought that we were going to have a good Aintree this year, because we had saved some horses to go to Aintree.  Actually, I wish we had saved a couple more.  Bravemansgame, I have no doubt that he would have won at Aintree if he hadn’t gone to Cheltenham.  So I’ve learned a bit of a lesson this year.  Aintree is such a good meeting, with such good prize money.  It’s not all about Cheltenham.  And, you see the number of runners this year at Cheltenham was way down, which tells you that a lot of the runners at Cheltenham are social runners.  They’re not competitive runners, so a lot of those horses are better off going elsewhere.  Cheltenham is good for the best horses, it’s good competition obviously, but they don’t all have to go there, and they’re not all suited by going there.  And if you’re going to win the championship, you’re not going to want to focus just on Cheltenham, you’ve got to focus on the whole season.”

The performance of the Irish horses at Cheltenham this year was obviously unprecedented. 

“I think that everything fell into place this year.  I think that, at the moment, most of the best horses are in Ireland.  That’s just the way it is at the moment.  It’s swings and roundabouts.  Back along, when we had Kauto and Denman and Master Minded, all those horses, it was the other way.  So it does go in cycles, and hopefully we can turn things around again.  It’s the same in football.  Manchester United or Manchester City, they can’t win the Premier League every single year.  It depends on the players you have in your team.  It’s evolving.  So no one team is going to win the Premier League every single year.  It’s the same in racing.  There was all this doom and gloom, headlines, the beleaguered Brits.  It was like, hang on lads, we do a good job, we just don’t quite have the right players at the moment.  Things will swing around.  As Punchestown showed.”

These things take time though.

“It’s not going to happen overnight.  I was looking at some of the ante post markets, and particularly Willie, his horses are nearly favourite for everything.  My view is, I’ve just got to be selective in what I run.  I may be going elsewhere with them and try to win other races.  It might be better for us to swerve Cheltenham, go to Aintree, and perhaps have a crack at Punchestown.  That could be quite interesting.”

There is some quiet talk of a race meeting in Britain, at a mid-point between Christmas and Cheltenham, like the Dublin Racing Festival, and that would also be interesting.

“I think that it’s easier to arrange in Ireland, but there is talk of it here.  It would be a challenge in Britain, because there are so many different groups involved.  But I always thought that, if something like that were to come to pass, it would work well in Newbury.  The Denman Chase, for example, in early February, it’s worth 40 or 50 grand.  If that was worth 100 or 150 grand, it would be a completely different race.  There are challenges here, and there are things being talked about that could be done to possibly have something like that, but it’s not easy.  I think that something like that would be very good, a good two days’ racing with real good prize money and real good racing.  And I think that Newbury would be a good place for it.  Because it’s not easy for us to send horses to Ireland for the Dublin Racing Festival, five weeks from Cheltenham.  The travelling that is involved.  Our two horses who ran at Punchestown, for example, Clan and Bob And Co, they’re tired even now, a week later, the travelling and all the challenges.  That said, Frodon could go to Leopardstown next year, because he’s not going to go to the Gold Cup.  Or even Clan for the Irish Gold Cup.  If you did go to Leopardstown, you’d probably go with horses who weren’t going to Cheltenham.”

But the drive to be champion trainer underpins everything. 

“If you have a good year, you want to be champion.  Our aim is to have a dozen winners by 1st October and then get going from Chepstow in the middle of October.  We obviously have our challenges and our challengers, Nicky and Willie, and the next one is going to be Dan (Skelton).  Dan and I talk almost every day.  One day he’ll be champion trainer, and I’ll be very proud of him when he is.  They have a great family set up.  Harry left school and came to me, and Dan was here for nine years.  He’s got a great enthusiasm, great drive, great will to win.  The competition is good though.  It keeps us sharp.  We just have to be as good or better next year.”

In that regard, things are looking good.

“You want to be consistent, keep doing the right thing, keep training winners.  I think we are as good as we could ever be now, with the experience Clifford (Baker) and I have, and the team, the facilities, the horses, the owners.  As long as you’ve got that enthusiasm and health and fitness to keep training and doing the job right, you’re going to keep training winners.  It’s all about your team though, your jockeys, your staff, your ground staff, your owners, and it’s all got to knit together and work.  It’s not about me.  It’s about a good team.  Team Ditcheat.  And someone’s got to head that team.  You listen to Alex talking about the manager.  Knits it all together.  But unless you have great players in that team, you’re not going to go anywhere.  It is a big team thing.”

The team of horses for next season is starting to take shape already. 

“Greaneteen was great at Sandown, and he’s still an improving young horse.  Monmiral is going to be a very interesting horse, we haven’t decided yet whether or not we go chasing with him next season.  Bravemansgame is definitely going chasing, he could be a very good novice chaser.  We should have a good team of novice chasers.  McFabulous will go novice chasing, Knappers Hill, the horse Megan won the bumper on at Aintree, he’s a nice horse, he’ll head our team of novice hurdlers.  He’ll start at Chepstow in October and hopefully work his way up.  We’ve already bought some nice three-year-olds in France.  A horse called Magistrato, and Matterhorn, who finished third at Auteuil there last week.”

Always building for the future.

“And Hitman, I think there’s a lot to come from Hitman yet as he strengthens up.  He didn’t quite get two and a half miles at Aintree.  He’s five, and the older horses beat him.  A few years ago the five-year-olds used to get an allowance.  I think he’ll get two and a half as he gets older, but he’s not short of boot.  You wouldn’t be afraid to start him off next season in a Haldon Gold Cup.”

Right horse again, right race.

© The Irish Field, 8th May 2021