The landscape has changed for Paul Nicholls. It was only a few years ago that his Cheltenham Festival team would include exalted names such as Kauto Star, Denman, Big Buck’s, Master Minded and Neptune Collonges.
Between them, the star quintet won three Gold Cups, four Stayers’ Hurdles, two Champion Chases, an RSA Chase and a Grand National — plus there were many other valiant runs in defeat, sometimes against each other.
Trainers rarely train one star horse in a lifetime. To have five, all at the same time, was bordering on freakish.Nowadays, though, the quality has been replaced by quantity. Nicholls will be a bit player, if that, when the biggest races unfold this week.
He will not have a runner in the Champion Hurdle tomorrow or the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday — and his challengers for the Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday and Cheltenham Gold Cup 24 hours later will be among the outsiders.
But write Nicholls off at your peril. The 54-year-old remains in pole position to win an 11th trainer’s title and has a strong team for the handicaps over the four days. He will also unleash youngsters who, he hopes, could become household names.
“You can only win with what you’ve got, you cannot invent Grade One horses,” he says. “It’s like a football squad, you are not going to have those top players every year. You have to rebuild and start again.
“I’ve been amazingly lucky to have won the Gold Cup four times and probably don’t deserve to win it again, but we will keep trying to find those horses.
“I enjoy bringing on young horses that can possibly be future stars and the trick is to not overface them. If they are good enough they will get there, if they aren’t then they won’t.”
The policeman’s son has many wealthy owners, including JP McManus, John Hales and Andy Stewart, but says sourcing the best horses is getting tougher. “When I bought the likes of Kauto Star, Neptune Collonges and Master Minded [from France] all those years ago, they’d had five or six runs.
“You were hopeful they were Grade One horses because they already had really good form. These days you can’t buy them like that because they are for sale after a run or two, or even before they’ve run. You don’t know what the form is worth and a year down the line it might not be as good as it immediately looked.
“The market is so strong and there are so many people in it, which is good and competitive, but it’s not so easy to find those top horses.”
Warming to his theme, he added: “When I bought Denman it wasn’t that we were clever or good judges. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Those things can happen again. It’s just a matter of luck.”
The positive of not having headline acts in his Ditcheat yard in Somerset is that the build-up has been slightly more relaxed. Kauto Star carried a burden of expectation wherever he went and usually delivered. By the time his career ended, he had won five King George VI Chases, two Gold Cups and a string of other big prizes.
Nicholls says he could never really enjoy his exploits until after he had run his races. “It’s a bit easier when you are not turning up with Kauto going for another Gold Cup,” the trainer admitted. “Those days were amazing but there was also a lot of pressure. There’s a little bit less now but you still want winners.”
One horse who brings a sparkle to the former jockey’s eye is Politologue. The six-year-old is an exuberant jumper heading for the JLT Novices’ Chase on Thursday.
He has won over fences at Haydock, Ascot and Kempton this season without making a semblance of a mistake.
“He’s very well and he goes for the JLT after a good preparation,” Nicholls says. “He has a leading chance. We always thought he would make into a nice chaser and he did really well from run to run. He jumps very nicely and is rated 152, which is a real smart mark for a novice over fences. Cheltenham has been the aim all season.
“We’ve got lots with chances but not many with mega-obvious chances. It’s no different to last year. I haven’t really got those Grade One horses to run but we did well last year with three handicap wins. If you have three winners every Cheltenham Festival, you are doing alright.”