Nicholls and the King George – an unsurpassed record
The inevitable march toward a fourteenth Trainers’ Championship by Paul Nicholls is not without its peculiarities, not least that Ludlow is not a happy hunting ground in pursuit of winners. Yet to enjoy a winner around our quirky circuit this season, the champion elect has consistently failed to appear in the rankings. But as we approach the Christmas period, expect the caption “trained P Nicholls, Ditcheat” to be appended to a great many winners.
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The early years
Nicholls took the tried and tested route into training from a career as a jockey. Largely associated with the West Country – based David Barons, his 133 winners included Hennessys on Broadheath and Playschool in consecutive years 1986 and ’87 and a Welsh National and Irish Hennessy with New Zealand – bred Playschool in 1987-88. a promising career was brought to a halt by a broken leg during┬á pre-season training in 1989, at which point Barons offered a switch to become his assistant, this during the years that Seagram nabbed the 1991 Grand National.
Taking out a trainer’s licence in 1991, he successfully applied to become the tenant trainer on Paul Barber’s farm in Ditcheat. The Barber family was, and is, part of a Wessex clique mad keen on their Point-to-Point and National Hunt racing, financed by a dairy farm and cheese business.
Just 8 horses comprised the opening season, and it took less than 2 months to post a first winner, at Hereford, part-owned by his father. Two years later, the ambitious Nicholls scored his first Graded winner with See More Indians in the Grade II Aga Worcester Novices Chase on the banks of the Severn, in the days when the eponymous racecourse staged winter racing. See More Indians doubled up a month later in the Feltham.
Half brother See More Business took the stable’s first Grade I scalp in ’97 when beating Challenger du Luc and Rough Quest in the Pertemps – sponsored King George at Kempton. The Nicholls bandwagon was now accelerating into the top flight.
In 1999, 3 winners at the Cheltenham Festival announced a new champion – elect. Call Equiname in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Flagship Uberalles in the Arkle and See More Business in the Gold Cup left spectators in no doubt that here was a challenger to the established top rank. The likes of Henderson, Nicholson and Gifford were likely to be usurped.
A string of remarkable horses
In the intervening 20 or so years, racegoers have been treated to a royalty of blue-blooded thoroughbreds that have won almost every race conceivable. See More Business was to win the King George again in 1999, a race that Nicholls has dominated, with an extraordinary 11 victories in the race, including Kauto Star’s five-timer between 2006-11, Silvianaco Conti’s double from 2013-14, and subsequently Clan des Obeaux in 2019, and Frodon in 2020. It would take a brave man to bet against Hitman or Bravemansgame not extending that record in 2022.
448 Graded winners in a total of over 3,500 career winners make Nicholls among the most prolific of modern day trainers. Master Minded, Neptune Collonges, Rock On Ruby and of course, the peerless Big Buck’s all conspired to keep Nicholls at the top of his game, earning him Trainer’s Championships for the first time in 2005-6, and subsequently for a further 12 seasons. The title has been briefly wrested from him by Nicky Henderson, but sheer weight of numbers gives the Ditcheat team the advantage time and again. For more information on past wins for Grade One, Grade Two, Grade Three, and listed and festival winners, click here.
The route to the Championship
The old order in the Trainers’ pecking order may be changing. The Seven Barrows powerhouse is always a force to be reckined with, never more so than at Cheltenham in March. But it’s the younger generation of challenger trainers who look likely to set Nicholls more of a challenge in retaining his crown.
The likes of Dan Skelton, whose spectacular series of big Saturday winners has only been halted by the freeze, the prolific Fergal O’Brien, the newfound dynamism of Ben Pauling and the timeless endurance of Donald McCain and David Pipe, mean there are always others snapping at Nicholls’ heels. A Grand National win for example can alter the rankings dramatically on the Championship, as can multiple winners at the Festival.
Whilst the big race aspirations at Ditcheat may yet be held by the Irish challenge, a string of young horses has been catching the eye, like Hermes Allen, McFabulous and Hitman. Among the older horses, Greaneteen was held by Edwardstone in the Tingle Creek but will renew rivalry at Cheltenham, but both are up against Energumene. Frodon has a fantastic race record with a most recent top weight victory in the Badger Beer Handicap at Wincanton, whilst Bravemansgame has deserved a tilt at the King George after his Charlie Hall success.
Nicholls the man
Perhaps it’s the pressure of running a top flight training business, but Nicholls is now on his third wife. Away from work, he is a family man, as likely to be supporting daughter Megan in her career as a broadcaster, or Olive, who has been riding between the flags.
His appreciation of football and support of Manchester Utd brought him into contact with Sir Alex Ferguson, who has shares in several horses at Ditcheat. And rather like another champion trainer in a different discipline, Nicholls enjoys nurturing his roses. What this all tells us is that this is a man who enjoys bringing on youngsters and developing their potential, whether in the garden, at home, or in the stable. You know with a Nicholls horse that it wil have been well prepared by a meticulous training and schooling regime.
And what is so admired among followers of the sport is that what you see is what you get. Nicholls is honest about where his horses will run, and how they will run. In his dealings with the media, he is straightforward and as good an ambassador as you could wish for in the sport.
At 60, he is in his prime, but training is a young man’s game. Don’t be surprised to see his peer group take precedence over the next few years. Nicholls, however, remains fiercely competitive. He won’t be surrendering top dog status without a fight.
That’s why he’s the punters’ favourite time and again.