'I did feel I'd had enough of it all' - inside the mind of Paul Nicholls
The 11-time champion trainer opens up to Lee Mottershead
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When used in conjunction with a horse the term could be less than complimentary but that's not so when deployed in relation to one of the most successful trainers of jumps horses there has ever been. With Paul Nicholls, it really is all in his head.
Among the ranks of racing professionals, Nicholls has few peers at the art of communication. He is one of the sport's finest talkers because he is one of the sport's finest thinkers. Where possible, he stays out of turf politics and industry debates, but ask him about any of the 150-plus animals in his string and Nicholls will quickly rattle off a series of opinions, views on past performances and predictions on those still to come. He does so with relish. It is a pleasure, not a chore.
He also never stops doing it. At 9.30pm on the night before his latest mammoth Racing Post stable tour was published, he sent its writer a message, expressing the view Paddy Power Gold Cup disappointment Saint Sonnet might perhaps do better dropped back to two miles. It was a Saturday evening sandwiched by two important afternoons at Cheltenham, yet Nicholls seemed in no mood to take his mind elsewhere.
"I spend a lot of time thinking – in fact, I never stop thinking," he says. "You have to be thinking the whole time and the reality is there isn't a lot of time to think about anything else. You can never flick off the switch. I do enjoy it, though. I always have done. Thinking produces winners."
There have been so many of them. There is not space here to document all his achievements, nor is this intended to be that sort of interview, but a short gallop through the story so far seems appropriate by way of an aperitif.
From Manor Farm Stables in the Somerset village of Ditcheat, the very able former jockey has been crowned champion trainer on 11 occasions. His big-race haul includes a Grand National, four Cheltenham Gold Cups, six Champion Chases, four Stayers' Hurdles, a Champion Hurdle, 11 King Georges and ten Tingle Creeks. There are many great trainers whose paths never cross with an all-time great. Nicholls, on the other hand, had Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded and Big Buck's all at the same time, not to mention countless other superstars before, during and since that golden era.
Those days and those horses are on our conversation table now. We have met for a specific reason, namely to go inside Nicholls' mind. By shining a light on some of his finest achievements, the hope and intention is we might discover how and why vital decisions were taken. As soon as we start chatting, it becomes immediately obvious his head has little room or scope for anything that is not racing or racehorses.
"If you're dealing with owners, staff, horses, jockeys, races, buying and selling, you don't have much in the way of spare time," he says. "I finish in the yard at 5.30pm and in normal times would meet my mates for half a pint. I then go home, have a shower and some supper, but after that I'm on the sofa with the entry book. I spend all night flicking through it, pencilling things in, scribbling things out. I never stop. I'll probably be doing that until 10pm, when I watch the news and then go to bed.
"I don't sleep great and always wake up between 4am and 4.15am. As soon as I'm awake I'm immediately thinking. At that time of day I have some great thoughts and ideas. Cyrname running in the Charlie Hall was one of them."
There were some who judged it madness. Cyrname went to Wetherby as the highest-rated jumper in training. His position on that pedestal had most definitely not been achieved by racing on left-handed tracks. The tour de force displays had all come at right-handed Ascot. In three outings going the other way around the French recruit had suffered three defeats, jumping markedly right in one of them.
After an early win at Sandown, Nicholls suggested Cyrname was "slightly" better competing on right-handed tracks. Following a 21-length handicap victory at Ascot last year, the now more certain trainer stated he was "undoubtedly better" in that direction. He thought that and we thought that. He changed his mind. The fact Cyrname was sent off 3-1 for the Charlie Hall underlined we had not. Nicholls was right and we were wrong. The second-favourite jumped perfectly straight and cruised through the contest on his way to a first success over three miles.
"You must never be afraid to have fresh ideas or to try new things," says Nicholls.
"I was convinced there was never really a problem with Cyrname. When he jumped out right one day at Newbury it was because a loose horse in front of him was jumping right-handed. Also, when he had run left-handed in the past he was a tank and a tearaway. He was an uncontrollable thug.
"We could never have worked him upsides back then because he would have been in Shepton Mallet before you could pull him up. Now he is totally the opposite. By changing a few things the penny dropped with the horse, so much so that going into Wetherby, Scott Marshall, his rider in the mornings, was even saying he was a bit laid-back in his work."
Nicholls had become convinced Cyrname was nothing like the horse of old – although as he watched his number-one performer cantering to the start, doubts briefly returned.
"Everyone said he couldn't win going left-handed, plus he wasn't going to stay – and then he drifted in the betting as well," recalls Nicholls. "As he went down to the start, I was thinking,'What am I doing?' I had to tell myself I was doing what I thought was right.
"If he wins this season's King George it's down to the fact he ran that weekend at Wetherby. Last year I was forced to go quiet on him after Ascot because he had such a hard race. From then on it was all too close to the King George to get him really right. At home now he is as fresh as paint. He'll go to Kempton in a completely different place compared to last year."
It is a place where Kauto Star ruled. On five occasions the Christmas championship was conquered by the much-loved and sadly late mighty chaser. His name would now appear on the roll of honour only four times had Nicholls heeded calls for the dual Gold Cup winner to be retired following a dismal display at the 2011 Punchestown festival. In what was his third straight defeat, he was pulled up by Ruby Walsh. The glory days seemed over. Not, though, to Nicholls or his head lad Clifford Baker.
"I've learned over the years to count to ten and not to make rash decisions," he explains. "The easiest thing would have been to announce his retirement, but I wanted to let the horse have a summer's break before we thought it through. I don't know why, but I remember feeling he wasn't finished – and that we had unfinished business.
"For whatever reason he was never quite right that season, yet when he came back to the yard in the summer he was big, well and strong. I said to Clifford I thought we still had another chance with the horse, but I knew we had to change things. He had become a little lazy, so we altered his training routine and started to be tougher on him. I wanted him to be mega-fit at Haydock. I wanted him to make all."
That Haydock race was the Betfair Chase. Kauto Star was sent off at what now seems like a dismissive 6-1. Just as his trainer had intended, he did indeed make all, unleashing a spectacular revival performance to win by eight lengths. One month later he made King George history, moving past Desert Orchid in the record books with a fifth triumph, but it was at Haydock that Nicholls was truly euphoric.
"My head was on the chopping block that day," he admits. "If he had underperformed again I would have received so much stick. I was well aware of that but you have to put those thoughts out of your head. You need to concentrate on your own thoughts and what you're thinking, not what other people believe. Kauto was public property, but throughout his career I was the one who had to make the decisions – and I knew how important it was that we made the right decisions.
"There was a lot of pressure then but there's always a lot of pressure. I do feel it but I try not to show it. I just have to absorb it."
Sometimes that is easier said than done. This encounter is an exploration of Nicholls' mind. To his credit, he is willing to talk about when that mind was not wholly at ease. As the best of times drew to a close, the worst of times crept up on a man who began to struggle with his mental health. That has never been public knowledge, for Nicholls largely sought to keep it all inside his head. Now that he has long since come out the other side, he can shine a light on the darker days.
"I was so lucky to have all those amazing horses, but it brought an immense amount of pressure," says Nicholls.
"Towards the end of that great era, I did feel for a minute as though I'd had enough of it all, particularly following the bust-up with Clive Smith and when Kauto left the yard to join Laura Collett. It felt as though after an incredible period we had taken a step back. I started to hear little sniping things and people saying we had gone, questioning us. A lot of things weren't going well. It all took a toll and I had a little spell when I may have suffered from a bit of depression.
"For a year or two it was quite tough, and I did struggle, but I always tried to keep it to myself. I probably bottled it up too much instead of talking about it. I told myself the minute I walked through the front door I couldn't show anybody how I was feeling. I thought I had to be strong and positive. I've always been like that."
Nicholls adds: "I was almost embarrassed to feel as I did, particularly given how much of a good time we had enjoyed. Some people who bottle things up can't deal with it. Fortunately, I'm lucky enough that I was able to manage. In fact, I doubt some people who know me would have even realised how I was feeling.
"I did think about stopping training, but that lasted for about five minutes. We got over it and we're in a good place now. That sort of situation wouldn't happen again but I also think I could deal with it differently now. You live, you learn and you get through it."
With Big Buck's, there was considerable living and learning. Racing in the colours of Andy Stewart and his family, he won what is now the Stayers' Hurdle in four consecutive years, more than any horse in the race's history. The first of those victories came in 2009, but at the start of that season Big Buck's was being trained as a chaser, not a hurdler. Even after he unseated Sam Thomas at the final fence of that season's Hennessy Gold Cup, most people assumed he would stay over fences. So did Stewart. So, indeed, did Nicholls, until a moment of inspiration hit him at a time when he ought to have been asleep.
"My God, we did a lot of thinking about Big Buck's," says Nicholls.
"I know he won at Aintree as a novice chaser, but he was absolutely hopeless over fences. After he lost Sam in the Hennessy, I thought to myself: 'What are we going to do?' If he was going to be a superstar I was certain he needed Ruby riding him. With no disrespect to Sam, Big Buck's had to have Ruby's style and patience, but there was no way we could pursue the Gold Cup route for Big Buck's while Kauto Star was around because Ruby was never going to get off Kauto.
"I felt we had to try something different. What we should do came to me in the middle of the night. I contacted Andy the next morning and said if Big Buck's was going to stay over fences he needed Ruby, and as that wasn't going to happen, why not run him over hurdles? Andy then came out with the famous line, 'Well, I think you're bonkers, but you're the boss.'"
Then, as so often before and since, the boss came up trumps.
"Bringing Big Buck's back to hurdles was the best decision I ever made," says Nicholls. "It's one that highlights you always have to be prepared to try new things. It's also the best example I've got to show if you want to be good you must never stop thinking, to the point it becomes an obsession.
"It probably doesn't help with any sort of relationship – and I know my track record isn't great on that front. You have to be so totally committed to the job. For me, aside from my three daughters, training winners comes first. In a lot of respects that's a sad thing to say, and it has cost me dear in so many ways, but it's the way my life has gone. I don't regret it. I still love it now as much as ever."
Paul Nicholls on . . .
Getting things wrong
When you make a mistake you have to be ready to apologise and admit you got it wrong. You then have to put those mistakes behind you. That's one thing I can do. I'm able to look forward and try hard not to make the same mistake twice.
Saying the right thing
When Denman won the Gold Cup we also had Kauto in second and Neptune Collonges in third. The following year, Kauto won with Denman in second and Neptune in fourth. On those days I knew if one person or set of owners was happy the other owners were probably unhappy. I was always thinking not just about trying to do the right thing but also trying to say the right thing. You have to think about what you say and be careful. You can't ever let your guard down. I must have been quite good at that because I've managed to survive.
The genius of Ruby
One reason why Ruby was such a brilliant jockey is he never stopped thinking. Before he got off a horse and saw me after a race he would have a plan about what to do next time. It never really gets mentioned but, for me, that's what set him apart from most jockeys.
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