Nicholls: It’s not all Cheltenham
Ian Ogg reports from Ditcheat as Paul Nicholls looks beyond the Cheltenham Festival in a bid to retain the trainer's title.
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls with Movewiththetimes
"The season isn't all about Cheltenham" said Paul Nicholls.
That statement didn't cause the sharp intake of breath that might have been expected given that the questions about those four days in March had dominated a press day at his Ditcheat Stables held, nominally it would seem, to advertise the Betfair Hurdle and Betfair Ascot Chase.
Ever the professional, Nicholls did bring the conversation back to the most valuable handicap hurdle run in Britain by the end of that sentence but more on that later.
It's all about perspective and it had been put to Nicholls that he might not have a runner in any of the four championship races at the Festival.
He doesn't even have an entry in the Champion Hurdle, Dodging Bullets could swerve the Champion Chase for the Grand Annual and Silviniaco Conti will miss the Gold Cup.
That leaves Ptit Zig and Zarkandar to potentially fly the flag in the Stayers Hurdle but Nicholls opined "there's no point going for a day out, there might be better options for them".
He certainly wasn't worried about the prospect adding: "It's possible but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. If you haven't got anything good enough to run in it there's no point trying to invent something."
Standing outside the office in front of 'Millionaire's Row' where the boxes are adorned with the legends of Denman, Kauto Star, Big Buck's and more besides it's hard not to compare the current crop with those greats of the game and it was put to Nicholls that this was a transitional season.
"Every season is now since those good ones aren't here; we've got a lot of young horses. We're not in any different position this year to last year.
"I've been so lucky to have had those horses in the past that I probably don't deserve to get any more.
"They are still youngsters. There isn't anything obvious at the moment that's quite there yet but one day they will. The good horses will come along from time to time, it's just finding them."
Last year the reigning champion trainer was pushed all the way for the title by Willie Mullins but it seems that challenge is unlikely to materialise this season with the Irish Champion less present on Britain's racecourses and suffering injuries to key players.
"He's just been unlucky," his rival said. "You have to feel for him but we all know what that's like. You get years when everything goes right and years when it all goes wrong and that's training but I bet he'll still have plenty of winners."
Nicholls himself had three handicap winners at last year's Festival and is hoping for more but revealed that his runners at Prestbury Park won't be lining up for the sake of it while acknowledging that luck would play its part: "Lots of chances but it's all got to go your way.
"We might not have as many as we usually run because I'm not going to waste shots for the sake of it when we can go somewhere else with them."
The placing of his horses seemed key in this season above all seasons with promising individuals such as Clan Des Obeaux and Diego Du Charmil among those who could skip Cheltenham in favour of Ayr.
The title race is still very much alive with Nicholls leading his nearest pursuer Colin Tizzard by £1,591,739 to £1,277,562, with Nicky Henderson around £100,000 behind him and it's the latter that Nicholls fears most.
"We're £300-odd grand in front of Colin but one race at Cheltenham….." he trailed off.
"I think Nicky is a bigger danger than everybody thinks. I think Nicky has got an awesome team of horses to run. Colin's really relying on one race.
"It's great going in to Cheltenham 300 in front but you can come out 300 behind; it soon changes at Cheltenham."
Numerically Nicholls is well ahead on last season and he has his eyes on beating his best-ever seasonal tally of 155 in 2008-09 as he reeled off the figures: "We've got 114 winners and I think last year it took us until February 11 to have 70 so we've been flying along.
"You can only win with the horses that you've got at a particular time and you've got to keep looking after what you've got and not go too deep too soon with them.
"It would be a nice aim to beat 155. Some of ours, whatever it is, are definitely better on better ground. April last year we had 30 winners and we always do well at the back end of the season, we've got loads of horses to run.
"We've not got too many to run in the better grade one races but any prize money is always helpful."
One of the more valuable races at the back end is, of course, the Grand National and Nicholls has "entered everything at this stage" including Saphir Du Rheu who "could definitely run in in one day, I've always thought that, but whether it's this year or next year I don't know".
The one horse that has always been on his mind for Aintree though is last year's Scottish Grand National winner Vicente who has been "trained for the season with that in mind".
"He's always a spring horse, wants good ground," he went on.
"He ran okay the other day at Doncaster but horses like him you just know you're not going to be winning over three miles from his rating. He looked like being tailed off but turned into the straight and flew up the straight and you're just getting runs into them to keep them sharp."
The focus may be on Cheltenham for the duration of the National Hunt season as far as many are concerned but Nicholls is capable of seeing the bigger picture.
"The season isn't all about Cheltenham – that does help but big races like the Betfair Hurdle are awesome and either side of Cheltenham there is so much prize money.
"There's a lot of racing left through March and through April and we'll have a lot of runners and Saturday's Betfair Hurdle is a very, very valuable race and a good race to win."
Nicholls could run both Zubayr and Movewiththetimes in the £155,000 contest and the latter would be an aptly named winner as the 10-times champion trainer copes with another transitional season and a lead of a mere £300-grand or so as the search for the next star goes on.