Defiant Nicholls: don't rule me out from retaining title
Paul Nicholls is looking forward to launching a powerful assault on Aintree's Randox Health Grand National meeting as he vowed to fight hard to overhaul Nicky Henderson and win a trainers' championship battle he described as "good for the sport".
Just one year after emerging victorious on the final day of the season following a titanic spring tussle with Willie Mullins, Nicholls this time faces stiff competition from closer to home, with Henderson having moved nearly £150,000 in front thanks to three Grade 1 victories at the Cheltenham Festival.
Ten-time champion Nicholls – whose run of championships was broken only when Henderson defeated him in the 2012-13 campaign – could manage just a single festival success, with Pacha Du Polder in the St James Place Foxhunter Chase. He is, though, set to have five of the 40 runners in the National, headed by Gold Cup fifth Saphir Du Rheu.
Bookmakers favour Henderson, quoted between 4-7 and 2-5 to regain the championship. The odds about Nicholls range from 5-4 to 7-4.
"There's a lot of good races worth a lot of money still to be run – and we have lots of good horses to run in them," said Nicholls.
"A lead of £150,000 is enough of an advantage, but it isn't massive. So much can change in a title race. Nicky was £500,000 behind going into Cheltenham. Now he's in front.
"If he happened to win the Aintree Hurdle and a couple of the Grade 1 novice chases it might well be game over unless we win the National. Whatever happens, though, we'll end up with 150 winners and well over £2 million, which means we've had an awesome season."
He added: "Nicky has a strong team. That's why I said last month he would be the big danger to us. Even so, three days at Aintree could make a big difference and we'll be there trying as we always do before going on to Ayr, Cheltenham and Sandown."
Reflecting on a festival at which he was noticeably weak in Grade 1 races, Nicholls added: "We have lots of horses who aren't good enough to run at the festival. Lots of the ones we ran there last week probably weren't good enough, either.
"This season we've really had to maximise what we've got. When we had all the good horses, the trainers' championship was all over by February. That actually made it boring for everybody.
"The situation we have now is more interesting – and if it does go to the last day at Sandown it will be very interesting. All this can only be good for the sport."
The Stewart family's Saphir Du Rheu is a best-priced 25-1 for the Aintree showpiece, for which outsider Cocktails At Dawn could be the only Seven Barrows inmate to make the cut if connections choose to run him.
"Now Saphir Du Rheu has finished fifth in the Gold Cup you'd have to say he is our number-one hope," said Nicholls, whose 2012 National triumph with Neptune Collonges played a huge part in his seeing off Henderson's title challenge that season.
"He ran a hell of a race at Cheltenham and has now got his confidence back. It's taken a little while for him to show what a good horse he is, but he showed it in the Gold Cup. That was a great National trial. He's in with a big chance.
"We'll hopefully have five in the race. Our other intended runners are Vicente, Le Mercurey, Wonderful Charm and Just A Par, who will go to the sale on the Thursday night with a National declaration.
"I know winning the National helped me when we won the title in Neptune's year but you can't count on winning it. It's such a unique race."
Not so unique is today's three-runner Exeter novice chase, in which Nicholls will try to chip into his friend and rival's lead with the smart Clan Des Obeaux.
Nicholls said: "He's still a young, immature horse who hasn't had a lot of experience. The idea behind this race is to give him some confidence before most likely going to Ayr."