An Interview with Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls
Instead of listing the big winners 13-times Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls has trained, it would be far easier to list the races he’s never trained the winners of. There has been thirteen Boxing Day King Georges and forty-six Cheltenham Festival winners…including four Gold Cups and six Champion Chases.
Having ridden for seven years, during which battles with keeping his weight down went alongside many winners, Paul, 60, took out his training licence in 1991. He’d previously spent time in the yard of David Barons, particularly assisting with Seagram’s Grand National win. Since then, he’s sent out more than 3500 winners from the yard in Ditcheat, Somerset. Cheltenham Gold Cups, a Grand National, Champion Chases, Champion Hurdles, Stayers…you name it, Paul Nicholls has won them all, adding to big victories in Ireland and France. Horses associated with the yard include See More Business, Kauto Star, Denman, Big Bucks, Neptune Collonges, Clan Des Obeaux, Politilogue, Frodon… The list of big race winners, past and present, is endless and testament to Paul staying at the top of the training game for so long. Abetted by loyal head lad Clifford Baker and a top team around them, Paul’s hunger for success will continue to churn out those big winners.
In the 2020 New Year Honours List, Paul was awarded an OBE for his services to the horseracing industry.
Paul is originally from Alverston, Thornbury, in the south Gloucestershire Berkley hunting country, which is really poignant because the village was also the name of the first winner Paul ever trained. He has three daughters, the former jockey Megan, amateur Olive and ten-year-old Zara from previous marriages and son Henry, who was born on Gold Cup day in March, from his partner Poppy Hemmings.
Paul with his parents, Brian and Margaret
Did you have a horsey childhood? My dad and my grandfather were both in the police force and had nothing at all to do with horses. Someone bought me some riding lessons and Dad and I got hooked on it. We learnt it together after getting ponies, and ended up doing gymkhana stuff. We did progress together but from zero background of horses.
How did you get into racing? Every Saturday afternoon, I used to sit with my Granddad and he would have a few bets on it and put what used to be the ITV 7. It coincided with the time I had the ponies and I’d bet him a Crunchie bar or something. I just got hooked on the whole concept. I got this mad brain wave, even though I was tall, I would become a jockey. There's no real reason other than it all going back to my Grandad.
What were your best days as a jockey? When I won two Hennessy Gold Cups. On Broadheath in ‘86 and in ‘87 on Playschool. Those were special days – to win on two consecutive years was fantastic.
Paul winning the 1986 Hennessy on Broadheath
How did you get into the training? My weight was massive problem and I always struggled with it.
I remember I was riding a horse when I worked for David and Jenny Baron's in the West Country, called Topsham Bay, who actually won a Hennessy. I got kicked and I broke my leg really badly, fib and tib. I was a month in hospital and I knew full well that, the minute I’d come out, I’d be too heavy. I was 12.5 stone and that was the end – I never race rode again after that.
I ended up as assistant to David and Jenny for a couple of years and in ‘91 we won the Grand National with Seagram. I was already hooked on the training. Earlier on when I was riding, I worked for Dick Bainbridge, even training fascinated me then.
After the ’91 National, I wanted to train but I had no money or land. it just happened one day in the in the Racing Post, or the Sporting Life as it was then, that the yard I’m in now came up for rent, from Paul Barber. I knew him because I’d ridden him some winners, went up to see him and the rest is history.
I started with eight horses and there were about 20 stables. Now we have built it up to 150 boxes; never having been anywhere else, we’ve come from where we are. It was Dad who pointed out Paul Barber’s advert and I was straight on the phone. It’s the best phone call I’ve ever made.
Of your Cheltenham Gold Cup winners, which one has meant the most to you? All those Gold Cups are special in different ways. The first one in ’99, See More Business, completed my landlord’s ambition to win a Gold Cup so it was great for that. We actually won him another one with Denman in 2008. Kauto Star won the two; the first horse to regain a Gold Cup - that was a special day. It's a job to pick one out. Any of those Gold Cups are very very special for their own different story.
In your opinion, what does racing generally do well at? I think that is racing is very accessible, we try and be as open as we can and it has a big following. It is a great sport. Indeed, so many things have improved over the years, one of biggest things to have improved is the welfare of the racehorse. Racing excels at that – the best feed, the best veterinary care just to name two aspects. As a sport, National Hunt racing is just fantastic.
In which areas could racing be improved? I could possibly be here all day but that could apply to any sport. Racing must keep having accessibility – getting that welfare issue across to people. A lot of things are changing now, everyone is more open and prepared to talk about it, I’ve never held back on that. Just be more open and honest and let people see what a fantastic business it is.
Leaving aside the big days, is there another day on the racecourse you won't forget? I always like going to our local tracks Wincanton and Taunton – any day we have winners there is a good day. We usually come home and have supper with some friends. They don’t have to be big days but they’re still special. One example is Yala Enki, won the last three Portman Cups at Taunton – it’s not a big track or a big day but definitely special.
Do you have a racing hero? When I was younger, I always admired Fred Winter. I think he was a role model as a trainer and a fantastic guy.
What are your favourite racecourses? Cheltenham and Aintree - they’re big tracks as well as Sandown and Newbury. I love Cheltenham – we’ve had lots of winners there and it’s a great track and I love Aintree, especially the Grand National meeting as it’s more relaxed. I love all those tracks but I’d say Aintree be at the top of my list.
What’s the best ever racing party you've been? One of the most memorable was when See More Business won the Gold Cup in ’99. We’d never had a Cheltenham winner then Flagship Uberalles won the Arkle on the Tuesday, on the Wednesday Call Equiname won the Champion Chase and then on the Thursday See More Business won the Gold Cup. We stayed in our local pub, the Manor, for the rest of the weekend.
2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup and the first three home: Denman,
Kauto Star (far left) and Neptune Collonges.
Photo credit: Getty Images
What is your ideal night out now? Dinner with friends.
What’s your favourite meal? Very simple, steak and chips.
What’s your favourite drink? Gin and tonic – slimline.
What’s your favourite holiday destination? Barbados – I’ve had great holidays there.
Other interests: It’s within what I do but I love point-to-pointing. My daughter Olive was sixteen last year and she rode eleven winners. I followed her round the country on Sundays and I loved it. I just love the whole point-to-point scene and the people. I mean, I started off in point-to-point and started my riding career there.
What’s your favourite music? Adele.
If you weren't a racehorse trainer, what would you be? An airline pilot!
*Many thanks to Old Gold Racing for the help in securing this interview. They published it first in their fabulous newsletter Racing Weekly. To sign up, go to https://mailchi.mp/2f6ba62d6182/racing-weekly-lead-capture