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Nicholls relishing huge week in bid to catch Henderson

Paul Nicholls: there is plenty left to play for in title race
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Paul Nicholls says all his bullets need to count in the trainers’ title fight with Nicky Henderson.

He has calculated he needs to emerge no worse than £200,000 behind his rival at the end of a pivotal Grand National meeting this week to keep alive his chances of winning an 11th crown.

The champion trainer is taking inspiration from overhauling Willie Mullins in last year’s battle as he prepares for three days at Aintree that he believes will be pivotal.

'So much prize-money'

Nicholls cut Henderson's lead to £76,601 after a double at Ascot on Sunday, resulting in some layers trimming his odds for the title to 5-4, and now has his eyes firmly set on the most valuable jumps race of the season, Saturday’s Randox Health Grand National, in which he will be five-handed.

He said: “There is so much prize-money to play for in the National alone – it’s over half a million pounds to the winner and the place money for second, third and fourth is almost £400,000 – so anything can happen with that sort of money up for grabs.

“And after that there are major meetings at Cheltenham, Ayr and, of course, the season’s finale at Sandown – there is still a hell of a lot to play for and we'll be using all the firepower available in the last couple of weeks."

Nicholls recollected his dramatic battle with Willie Mullins 12 months ago which hung in the balance until Sandown’s last day of the season, saying: “When we left Aintree on the Saturday night we were £180,000 or so behind Willie and everybody thought that was it, but we still managed to claw that back and more. It'll be a case of making all the bullets count again.

“It’s an interesting home-grown little battle and Nicky and I are good mates, so it’s great for jump racing in Britain as the title could go down to the wire in similar fashion to last year. We've both still got plenty of horses to run, so it’s certainly not over.

“I fully accept that at the end of the day I'm short of Grade 1 horses at present but we've still had a brilliant year as we already have over £2m in prize-money in the bag for the 14th season, which is no mean feat, and we're on target to send out 156 winners this time, which would be a career-record number for the yard.”

Nicholls confirmed riding plans for his quintet of Grand National hopefuls with stable jockey Sam Twiston-Davies aboard his main hope Saphir Du Rheu, the shortest-priced of the five at a top-priced 20-1.

Brian Hughes will  have his first ride for the stable as he is set to partner last year’s Scottish National winner Vicente, who was recently purchased by Trevor Hemmings as a replacement for the ill-fated Many Clouds.

The trainer said: “Brian rides a lot of horses for Trevor in the north and he thought it would be a good idea if he was on Vicente. Brian came down to the yard the other day to school the horse and  was very pleased with the way everything went.”

Brian Hughes has vowed to appeal ten-day ban
Le Mercurey will be ridden by Sean Bowen, while Harry Cobden is set to partner Just A Par and Katie Walsh will once again be aboard Wonderful Charm, on whom she was a fast-finishing runner-up in the Cheltenham Foxhunter behind stablemate Pacha Du Polder.

Interestingly, Just A Par has a date with the auctioneer’s hammer before lining up for the Aintree marathon, and Nicholls explained: “He'll be declared on Thursday morning for National along with the others but he'll be offered up for auction at the sales at the course that evening, so he could be wearing different colours come Saturday.”

Asked to pinpoint his best chance in the race, Nicholls was happy to sit on the fence and said: “It’s the Grand National and they all go to Aintree with their chances as drying ground will suit all five horses. It’s a hard race to win any year and this time around is definitely no exception.”    

When we left Aintree last year we were £180,000 or so behind Willie Mullins and everybody thought that was it, but we managed to claw that back

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