To hear trainer Paul Nicholls chatting at his Manor Farm Stables or watch him putting his horses through their paces on his grounds at Ditcheat in Somerset, you might be hard pressed to peg him as the most successful National Hunt trainer of all time. His affable, low-key demeanor belies his status as a nine-time British jump racing Champion Trainer. However this easy-going attitude, along with an optimistic, forward-thinking approach to training, is what has given him much of the success he’s enjoyed during his career.
Paul Nicholls was born in 1962 and left school at age 16 to work with point-to-point racers before becoming a conditional jockey in 1982. After working for the late National Hunt trainer Josh Gifford (father of trainer Nick Gifford and Olympic eventer Kristina Cook), Nicholls went on to become the stable jockey for David Barons, until a broken leg ended his seven-year riding career.
Whilst he enjoyed 133 National Hunt wins in the irons, Nicholls came into his own as a trainer. After working as David Barons’s assistant trainer, he struck out on his own in 1991. Starting with just a handful of horses, Paul Nicholls saw an early Grade 1 victory with See More Indians at the 1993 Feltham Novices’ Chase at Kempton.
The Cheltenham Festival was what really vaulted Nicholls to prominence as a trainer. In 1999, he won three National Hunt Steeplechases: the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Arkle Challenge Trophy, and the Gold Cup. He savored a number of big victories after that, winning his first Champion Trainer title at the close of the 2005-2006 season.
Other Champion Trainer crowns followed in short order, but Paul Nicholls faced perhaps his greatest challenge going into the 2014-2015 season, after emerging victorious from a tough go of it the previous year. Having to rebuild his yard after losing Master Minded, Denman, Big Bucks, Neptune Collonges, and Kauto Star (a double loss), Nicholls committed himself to making an investment in his future stable.
That ability to think strategically has served him well over the years, and perhaps never more so than in the months leading up to the start of the 2014-2015 National Hunt race season. Always a good recruiter, Nicholls looked beyond the UK, in Ireland, France, and Germany, for new prospects, and even scouted the point-to-point field for talent. Like a horse coming from behind in the stretch, Paul Nicholls picked off his obstacles one by one to win the Champion Trainer title for the ninth time in 2015.
While Nicholls is still hungry for another title in 2016, it is the process of preparing his horses to race that gives him the most pleasure. Novice chases are his particular joy, and he brightens when talking about “sharpening up” his yard when schooling young horses on grass for the first time. He is equally glowing about his new circular gallop, which he feels helps keep his horses at the fitness level that the sport now commands.
Paul Nicholls is happy to take on unknowns in the saddle too, putting his faith in stable jockeys like Sam Twiston-Davies, who has yet to show the winning record of a jockey like AP McCoy but who relishes the preparation process just as much as his boss and mentor. Nicholls is quick to credit his team with much of his success, and like the four-legged stars in his stable, they are all considered part of what makes his operation work so splendidly.
With Saphir Du Rheu, Rebel Rebellion, Silviniaco Conti, Dodging Bullets, Vibrato Valtat, and Sound Investment showing great promise for the future, Paul Nicholls can perhaps relax a bit, at least until November of this year, when the ‘jumps season proper’ kicks off once again. He’s patient but eager to see what his new crew can do, and he’s already thinking ahead and looking at the programme book to place each candidate in the right race for the upcoming season. When Paul Nicholls says, “It’s all about looking to the future,” he means it.