To say Paul Nicholls was having an excellent season would be quite the understatement. The Somerset-based trainer has cemented his reputation as the leading force in British National Hunt racing, but some people still aren’t convinced.
To me, there simply isn’t a better trainer at the top of British National Hunt racing than Paul Nicholls. This season has simply proved that fact and he’s going to reclaim the trainer’s title from Nicky Henderson. That’s no surprise, in my eyes, as Nicholls edges the direct comparison between the two.
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From the 1995-96 season onwards, Paul Nicholls seasonal strike-rate has not dropped below 20%. That’s a truly remarkable statistic, given the competitive nature of national hunt racing.
Nicholls and Henderson have shared the trainer’s title since 2005-06 and that consistency is the thing they share. Henderson’s strike-rate also hasn’t dropped below 20% since 2005-06 and it goes to show just how incredible both trainers are in their own right.
Nicholls had a quiet season in 2019-20, by his standards, and Henderson took the trainer’s title as a result. That accolade looks set to return to Ditcheat, however, with Nicholls holding a 27% strike-rate this season. From 410 runners, 109 have returned to the winner’s enclosure.
His consistency is utterly astonishing and given the next statistic, it’s made him nearly unstoppable.
11-time Champion Trainer
Consistent success ultimately breeds champions, and Nicholls is no exception. He has lifted the trainers’ championship on eleven occasions, including a spell of pure dominance that saw him take the title back to back from 2005-06 all the way until 2011-12.
Granted, Henderson has fought back in recent years and has won three of the last four titles, but Nicholls’ success speaks for itself. Henderson, in total, has six trainer accolades to his name, and he’s had more stabs at it.
Only Martin Pipe has more championships than him, so he sits in illustrious company.
A sixteen-time Grade 1 winner, no horse compares to Kauto Star. He was simply magnificent, and Nicholls campaigning of him can be illustrated with the same word. He never turned down a challenge with Kauto, whether it be over two miles or three.
His favourite distance, however, was three miles, specifically at Kempton over Christmas. A five-time winner of the King George, he also landed the Cheltenham Gold Cup on a pair of occasions, making history by becoming the first horse to regain the Gold Cup in 2009.
Whatever the ground, whatever the opposition, Nicholls always had Kauto ready for the fight. Campaigning horses perfectly is an underappreciated skill and that pursuit of perfection can backfire.
Henderson is also top of his class, there’s no disputing that, but Altior’s recent seasons do show you how things can go wrong.
Best horses, seen often
Paul Nicholls has trained some of the best horses of all time, including the aforementioned Kauto Star. Ultimately, we want to see the best doing what they do best, race. If Nicholls found an opportunity for his horses, and they were fit enough, then he’d take them.
A great example of that is Big Buck’s, who we often saw four or five times a season at his prime. Silviniaco Conti was another, hitting the track on 34 occasions for Nicholls, winning 16 of them.
That’s not to say that trainers who don’t run their best horses often are worse, that would be a silly thing to say. Simply put, the way Nicholls campaigns his best horses is endearing to the racing public, and it’s great for racing.
That’s perhaps the biggest difference between Henderson and Nicholls. Henderson is more particular with his targets and likes to give his horses the easiest route towards top class engagements. Buveur D’Air is a prime example, having shunned Grade 1 targets for the the Contenders’ Hurdle at Sandown. There’s nothing wrong with that, at all, but Nicholls campaigns his horses for all the best pots they can achieve.
Incredible support staff
If there is one thing Nicholls does well, it’s surrounding himself with talent. From the jockeys, to his assistants, Nicholls has had some legendary names pass through Ditcheat. Ruby Walsh in the obvious example, with Dan Skelton also learning the tricks of the trade from his time at the stable. I think that training has paid off pretty well for him!
Harry Cobden has established himself as a star in recent years and looks like a champion jockey in waiting, while Bryony Frost is perhaps the most popular jockey in Britain right now.
Don’t forget his conditionals either, with Lorcan Williams and Bryan Carver both making big splashes this term.