Paul Nicholls today (Tuesday) celebrates 30 years of training from his Manor Farm Stables, determined to secure a place in the record books as the first trainer to saddle 4,000 Jump winners in the UK.
Since picking up the keys to the place he calls home on October 19th 1991, the 59 year old has transformed the Ditcheat yard into one of Jump racing’s most formidable operations, winning virtually every major prize in the sport.
With 12 Champion Jump Trainer’s titles and four Cheltenham Gold Cup victories to his name, the ex-jockey now hopes to eclipse the achievements of former rival Martin Pipe, who currently holds the record as Britain’s winning-most Jump trainer with 3,930 victories.
On his 30th anniversary at Manor Farm Stables, Nicholls is “as competitive ever” but admits he still finds it hard to comprehend what he has achieved since celebrating his first victory with Olveston at Hereford on December 20th 1991.
He explained: “It’s 30 years ago since we turned up here but it seems like yesterday.
“Jim Old was here at the time and was in the process of going. I secured the deal for the yard with Paul (Barber) during the summer and we had been shopping and got a few horses, including See More Indians.
“We only had eight horses but we made it all work. I’ve been very lucky to have the support of a lot of owners. A lot of hard work and heartache has happened to get where we are today.
“Olveston was my first winner at Hereford in December 1991. Hywel Davies rode it and dad owned it with a couple of pals. I remember that well, though there is a lot in between that I can’t!
“I never believed it would be like this but I always wanted to make a success of it. That first season I trained 10 winners so that was a good start in my book, then we upped it again the next season.
“I probably don’t take in what I’ve achieved as I like to look forwards and not back, but it is nice to reflect on what we have done.
“I’m just as competitive as ever and never once have I ever thought ‘I’ve had enough of this now’ and that I want to pack it in.
“Looking ahead it would be nice to train 4,000 Jump winners as I don’t think anyone has done it. I’ve won four Gold Cups but I want a fifth and achieving that would be awesome.”
Victory for Olveston at Hereford two months into his new venture will always be remembered, but when it comes to turning points Nicholls believes the 1999 Cheltenham Festival was the moment which helped transform his career.
He said: “The first turning point was the Cheltenham Festival in 1999. We had Flagship Uberalles on the Tuesday win the Arkle, Call Equiname win the Queen Mother Champion Chase on the Wednesday and See More Business win the Gold Cup on the Thursday.
“What a three days they were. They really launched my career and took it to another level. Straight after that everybody wanted horses with me.
“Andy Stewart came on board, as did John Hales. If it hadn’t been for those three horses we wouldn’t be talking now. It is what I needed.
“Those first years were hard as although we were training winners we needed big winners and Cheltenham Festival winners as they are what get you noticed and I will always be indebted to those three winners.”
Whatever Nicholls goes on to achieve in the future, for many he will be best remembered for his expert handling of Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded, Big Buck’s and Neptune Collonges, during what was a golden era for the yard.
He added: “Having all those good horses at the time was fantastic. Kauto and Denman clashing was always a lot of pressure.
“You can put Big Buck’s and Master Minded in there as they were expected to deliver and, touch wood, they did. It was a nice pressure to have.
“Perhaps everyone can’t deal with it but we managed it and made sure they didn’t let anyone down. They were the best of their generation and were amazing horses.
“We will probably never have another Kauto or Big Buck’s but we will keep on trying to find them and you never say never.”
As for standout memories, Kauto Star’s second success in the 2009 Cheltenham Gold Cup – when becoming the first horse to reclaim the title having lost it 12 months earlier to stablemate Denman – is the victory that has given Nicholls the most pleasure.
He said: “Winning the Grand National with Neptune was fantastic, while Kauto winning his fifth King George at Kempton was one of the most amazing days racing that I will ever have.
“Even when he won the fourth Betfair Chase on route to the King George, he had been written off a little bit and people couldn’t understand why I was running him.
“He was 11 years old against Long Run but he made all and won. People were clapping him before he even got halfway around the course.
“To win those races was brilliant but I think the second time he won the Gold Cup was just an astonishing day. You cannot bottle that up.
“There is no better experience in racing than walking into that Cheltenham winner’s enclosure behind a Gold Cup winner and I would love to do it again.”
It may be Nicholls’ name on the door at Manor Farm Stables but he acknowledges that success has only been possible with the team he has had around him, starting with the support of ‘landlord’ Paul Barber.
He said: “It is my business but it has been Team Ditcheat all the way. I’m the boss and have to make the decisions but you are only good as the team around you.
“I have had good people around me from the start like my dad (Brian Nicholls), Clifford Baker along with some good assistants along the way, of which some are now training, while we couldn’t have done a lot without the support of Mr Barber.
“It has been fantastic and in some ways I feel like we have just begun, as you never stop learning in this sport.”
When it comes to team members, few have played a bigger role behind the scenes than long serving head lad Clifford Baker, who joined Nicholls in 1996 following a lengthy stint with David Nicholson.
Baker himself explained: “The Duke was getting towards the end of his career so I needed a new job and somebody said, ‘Paul Nicholls is looking for a new head lad’.
“I was only brought up three miles from here. I knew Paul was just getting going and he had a couple of decent horses like See More Indians and See More Business and I thought why not go for it.
“When I arrived we had 42 horses and now we have 200 on the books so you can see how much it has grown and I’m lucky enough to have grown with it.
“Paul and I have sort of come along together and just got better. We have had plenty of ups and downs but on the whole we can’t really complain.
“You name it we have done it and it is nice to have been part of it and close to it all and be a senior member of the team.”
As far as character assessments go, Baker has the utmost respect and admiration for his long standing boss.
He added: “It is Paul that has driven it. He is as keen, ambitious and enthusiastic as he was 25 years ago when I joined. He has not wavered at all.
“When you have got horses it keeps up that drive. It is Paul’s job to get the horses and the owners and it is my job to make sure they get there fit and well.
“He has been a great guy to work for and he is a great boss. He is very generous. He wants things done properly but that is the way forward.
“We don’t cut corners but we keep it as simple as we can and it has paid off. He has been champion trainer 12 times so he hasn’t done a bad job.”
Baker, like Nicholls, points towards the 1999 Festival as a real milestone for the yard, but it will always be the memories of the mighty Kauto Star, who he used to ride at home on a regular basis, that he personally treasures above all else.
He added: “Those three winners at the 1999 Cheltenham Festival were great and did bring us more horses.
“The era of Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded, Big Buck’s and Neptune Collonges was phenomenal and you couldn’t have asked for a better four or five years.
“From a personal point of view I used to ride Kauto Star out every day and what he achieved was exceptional. He was a freak and a one off.
“After they disappeared we had a quiet period but we kept our heads down and hopefully we have built a few more back up again now.
“You will never have four or five horses all like that at the same time again but you just need to have one or two coming through to keep you ticking over and winning the big Grade One races.”
Despite turning 60 next year, Nicholls still has the hunger to unearth the next Kauto Star or Denman and there is no suggestion of him slowing down anytime soon.
Nicholls added: “I’m 60 in April and you never know, in 10 years’ time I might want to train less and just train 60 down at my place for good friends but I can’t see that and we’ve got no intention of cutting back.
“We have a great team here for the future and who knows there could be a couple that turn into genuine Gold Cup contenders.
“I think if we have this conversation in 10 years’ time we will still be as determined and ambitious as we are now.”