Quality not quantity the watchword for Nicholls at Cheltenham this year
Yet with most fearing another dominant display from the Irish-trained horses – British trainers won just five of the 28 races over the four days last year – Somerset-based Nicholls is content to play the long game.
The championship is settled on prize-money totals from April to April, and the 59-year-old will attempt to do what he did last year, swerving Cheltenham with a number of his leading lights – such as Hitman, Clan Des Obeaux and Monmiral – and keeping his powder dry for some big prizes at Aintree.
Yet while he has some serious ammunition, there is no ‘banker’ as there was in years gone by with the likes of Festival legends Big Buck’s, Master Minded or Kauto Star, who hoovered up valuable Grade Ones for fun.
While everyone else is playing catch-up, the master of Ditcheat, who has 46 Cheltenham winners to his name, is relaxed. He even issued a playful jibe to his pursuers.
“Nicky was teasing me about the trainers’ championship and I said, tongue-in-cheek, that I hope the Irish beat Nicky and Dan all week so it would make the trainers’ championship easier!,” laughed Nicholls.
“At the end of the day, I am about four hundred grand ahead of Dan and Nicky, yet one Champion Chase or Gold Cup and that is wiped out in one go.
“Of course we want our (British) team to win as many races as we can, and we will be cheering everybody on.”
Nicholls is enjoying a remarkable year that has flown under the radar a little, owing in part to the yard’s quiet spell in January. Nicholls admits he was “a bit anxious” as he sought to get to the bottom of a few horses who had underperformed.
“I don’t really know why they did,” he said. “There are a lot of yards who are struggling at the minute.
“We never found anything wrong. I think the flu jabs, for whatever reason this year, took the horses a little bit longer to get over, whether that is the climate or the weather, I’ve no idea. We did find a tiny issue with a mineral imbalance in the food, but that was sorted.
“You all have a quiet spell, the ground was bad, but now we have had plenty of winners and it is going OK again.
“Those horses who are going to go are all in great shape, I’m very pleased with them and they look all right, so I’m happy with all of those.”
He added: “I think I’ll end up with a dozen or 14 runners.
“I’ve learned not to waste all the shots, save some for other meetings and different things like that.
“We’ve some nice horses to run, which is what you want, but we’d never have the numbers Willie (Mullins) and Gordon (Elliott) have got.
“We have some nice horses. Bravemansgame and Stage Star are exciting horses to run now – and for the future – and then you want a few more for next year.”
Last season’s Festival was something of an Irish benefit with Mullins and Henry de Bromhead responsible for six winners apiece and Nicholls, like so many other British trainers, drew a blank for the first time since 2002.
Nicholls feels the home guard will have their backs to the wall again, such is the strength and depth from the Emerald Isle.
“Things won’t change in a year or anything like that. It’s quite competitive and the Irish will have a huge number of runners – a lot more than we’re going to have this year,” he said.
“Numbers wise, it won’t change much for a year or two. It goes in cycles.
“If you go back 10 or 12 years when I had all those good ones, we were winning all the races, and in 10 years’ time it might change again, but it won’t happen overnight.
“I think it will change. It is all about having the horses at a particular time.
“You can’t just buy your way out of it or change overnight.
“You want to win at Cheltenham, but you want to be successful across the board and win races through the year, and that is what we try to do.
“You can only go to Cheltenham with what you’ve got. You can’t invent horses or imagine them up. You have to try to be realistic.”
I think my best three chances are Bob And Co, Bravemansgame and Stage Star
If Cheltenham was not competitive enough, Nicholls admits he has made things a little harder on himself.
His legacy is not all about the championships or big races won – which includes four Cheltenham Gold Cups and a Grand National – in a training career which started in 1991 after he retired from the saddle. It will be about those he has mentored.
Next season, assistant Harry Derham will train in his own right, near Marlborough, and Charlie Davies will assume the number two position.
“It is always revolving,” said Nicholls. “Charlie is in his fifth year with me as pupil assistant and he just slots straight in. We carry on as normal.”
Christian Williams, Anthony Honeyball, Skelton and now Derham are all shoots from the Nicholls training tree.
“I teach them too well, really, don’t I?,” he smiled.
“They have all been here and spent time here and hopefully they learn to do things properly, which they do. They are all good trainers, they are all competitive and know what they are doing.
“I’ve made life even harder to train winners for the next few years, especially with Dan.”
Skelton, who was Nicholls’ assistant for nine years, is chasing hard in the title race and seems certain to win a title or two in future.
Yet this remarkable season could still end up being Nicholls’ best.
“At the start of every season, you look to try to win the title,” he added.
“You try to box clever and run horses in the right races and concentrate on winning a lot of big races or a lot of prize money.
“I think I’m about £50,000 off winning £2million in prize-money before Cheltenham.
“It looks like we have had an ordinary season, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in the trainers’ championship when I’ve had that total before Cheltenham. It is a good total to get and there is a lot of prize-money at Cheltenham and afterwards – there is loads left.
“I love winning the trainers’ championship, of course I do. But you have to get the balance right and consider what you are doing.”
The always-genial champion rarely keeps his cards close to his chest. He does not need to. The difference is he knows when to play them.
And while Mullins, De Bromhead and Elliott will doubtless have a large say in which side of the Irish Sea the Prestbury Cup goes again, it is a fair bet that Nicholls will have a few aces in the pack.
“I think my best three chances are Bob And Co (St James’s Palace Festival Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase), Bravemansgame (Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase) and Stage Star (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle),” he admitted.
“They’re probably the three, but some of the handicappers could go well. Lots of nice chances without saying there was a banker. All those races are extremely competitive and extremely hard to win.”
So it will be quality rather than quantity again for the perennial champion.
“There would not be too many more horses I could put on the list,” said Nicholls.
“Hitman, if I give him a hard race in the Ryanair, he won’t go to Aintree. I still think he is a big baby – he is not ready to go to Cheltenham yet.
“Clan Des Obeaux, we know he is a waste of time at Cheltenham, so he is better off going to Aintree. You just have to be realistic. We tried with Clan and it just didn’t work, so it will be no different this year.”
The best videos delivered daily
Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox