Following Dodging Bullets’ win over the weekend, Pundit Arena’s Neill Dennehy argues that Paul Nicholls Is top of the class when it comes to horse trainers.
Saturday’s winner Dodging Bullets was of course once trained by Willie Mullins, but was moved to Paul Nicholls on the basis that he would find opportunities more commensurate with his talent in England.
Mullins I’m sure would have scoffed had you suggested that Dodging Bullets would go on to be shorter than Champagne Fever for a championship race at Cheltenham in 2015, both being fit and well. As a rule, other trainers don’t improve horses out of Mullins’ yard, in fact it is usually the Closutton handler embarrassing other trainers.
What Nicholls has managed to eke out of a reasonably talented but weak-finishing performer in Dodging Bullets is astonishing and that horse is just another in a long list of extreme equine talent maximisation.
In view of the slight dimming of the Sprinter Sacre light, perhaps racing fans will become slightly more receptive to the credentials of Nicholls own great 2 miler of recent years, Masterminded. He won 2 Champion Chases and was certainly in the Sprinter Sacre stratosphere of brilliance. “He only really did it once,” detractors might protest, but for anyone who viewed and truly appreciated the scale of what he inflicted upon Voy Por Ustedes at Cheltenham in 2008, once was enough…… and he did a bit more besides.
As Nicky Henderson has found in recent years, it’s hard to keep them right. From the mid-noughties, Nicholls has dominated with what was at a time an astonishing arsenal the likes of which the trainer himself has admitted we are never going to see all together again. Kauto Star, Denman, Masterminded, Big Bucks, Twist Magic, Neptune Collonges. Nicholls wrung every drop out of each and harnessed their ability, cashing in on having won an arm wrestle for power a few years earlier with Martin Pipe. He’s still doing much the same now but with less.
You’d have lost count of the number of times Kauto Star alone looked finished, but Nicholls brought him back through that great strength of his, attention to detail. He may cut a somewhat comical, overly-exuberant figure on those Channel 4 television features filmed in early morning around Cheltenham time, coffee in one hand, what looks like a Twirl bar in the other, making out rotas in his office wired by the caffeine and cameras, but you get the sense that he is omnipresent in the yard and really knows his business. The way the team has stood up to the loss of Harry Fry and Dan Skelton surely confirms that Nicholls has been the key man all along. Until Mullins can add a few Gold Cups, he can still call himself the best. He is holding them off with a much depleted battalion in qualitative terms now. The likes of King George winner Silviniacco Conti and Dodging bullets were never heralded but here they are.
Last season Nicky Henderson had what looked to be a comparable team to that great Nicholls one of the latter part of the last decade. Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig, My Tent or Yours, Bobs Worth and Oscar Whiskey among others. The success hasn’t materialised and the attrition rate has been poor. Henderson is a good trainer, probably a great in the eyes of most, but when it comes to keeping them going at the top level, as the Sindo’s Paul Kimmage put it the other week while assessing his standing in his own metier, “We can’t all be Mozart, Joe.”