Cheltenham Festival: Trainer Paul Nicholls on 'jealousy' and life as the underdog

Trainer Paul Nicholls with Politologue, left, and Movewiththetimes
Trainer Paul Nicholls with two of his Cheltenham charges, Politologue, left, and Movewiththetimes

It won't be like the glory days of Kauto Star, Denman, See More Business, Master Minded or Big Buck's for Paul Nicholls at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival.

Jump racing's 10-time champion trainer, the winner of 40 races at the sport's showpiece event, finds himself sending a smaller than usual team of runners to line up during the most important four days of the season, with its 28 races.

While the chaser Politologue, a fabulous jumper, and hurdlers Movewiththetimes and Dreamcatching, plus a few others, will all have their fair share of supporters, the squad of 20 or so is probably lacking star quality.

The trainer, who's on course for a likely 11th title, is rated fourth favourite to collect most winners, behind the fixture's reigning champion Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson and Gordon Elliott.

After all of them comes Colin Tizzard - a near-neighbour of Nicholls in England's West Country - whose list of fancied horses includes the two biggest Gold Cup hopes, Cue Card and Native River.

And in an interview to mark the return of Friday afternoon racing to BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, Nicholls said: "You'd have to say there's a bit of jealousy with, say, Colin having all those superstars, but then I know that's what everyone was thinking when I was in that situation.

"And I mean jealous in a nice way, not in a vindictive way at all. We're all good friends but he wants to beat me and I want to beat him.

"Everyone loves to have those type of horses, and I was lucky to have mine, but I'd like to have those [trained by Tizzard].

"It is a little bit frustrating because having run all those horses in the Gold Cup every year, and you're winning Champion Chases, and suddenly you haven't got those and there's a little bit of a hole to fill."

Kauto Star winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2007
Ruby Walsh rode Kauto Star to Gold Cup victory twice, once in 2007 and again in 2009

It's pretty extraordinary to think that 10 years have passed since Kauto Star's first Gold Cup success; it seems in so many ways like the day before yesterday.

Twelve months later, Kauto was toppled, finishing second behind Denman, only to turn the tables around again in 2009, becoming the first horse to regain national hunt racing's top prize, with his illustrious stablemate relegated to the runner's-up spot. They met in the race twice more.

Though it wasn't the first time that two horses under the care of the same trainer had competed against each other at that kind of level. The fierce rivalry captured the public's imagination with fans displaying their allegiance with rosettes, scarves and other merchandise.

With Kauto Star now dead, as the result of a freak accident in his retirement paddock, and Denman a regular in the hunting fields of the Cotswolds these days, how does Nicholls reflect on the pair?

"You can't take sides because you're training them all the same," he says.

"I always called Kauto my mate because he was human in a lot of ways, and he was so brilliant, while Denman was trying to take your arm off - he was a bit more aggressive.

"Both were amazing horses; I'd love to have another one, but it would be awfully hard to find horses as good as them."

Those 40 successes since the first in 1999 puts Nicholls third in the Festival's all-time roll of honour of successful trainers, equal with the late Fulke Walwyn and behind Henderson (55) and Mullins (48).

Though he has a loyal group of owners, they include just one of jump racing's 'big-money three' - the businessman JP McManus. The other two - Ryanair's Michael O'Leary and financier Rich Ricci - concentrate their support in Ireland; O'Leary principally with Gordon Elliott and Ricci exclusively with Mullins.

It makes competing harder and harder, and sometimes makes Nicholls wonder if he's had his most fruity slice of Festival luck.

He said: "They were amazing days and I've been incredibly lucky to have won all those good races, and probably don't deserve to again.

"To have had those amazing horses that you'd call the 'horse of a lifetime', you'd probably say I'd be lucky to find another - but that doesn't mean to say I won't be trying to find another one - I am."

We were chatting at one of the dozens of Cheltenham previews that take place around these islands in the weeks leading up to the Festival - this one at the newly re-opened Hereford racecourse.

For the record, Nicholls gave Politologue, who'll be ridden by stable jockey Sam Twiston-Davies in the JLT Chase, as his best chance of the week.

And Arpege D'Alene, partly-owned by [former Manchester United manager] Sir Alex Ferguson, got a favourable mention for the JT McNamara National Hunt Chase.

As for the Gold Cup, he thinks Native River will win because he evokes memories of Denman, and that, he says, is good enough for him.

Hear the full Paul Nicholls interview on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, Friday, 10 March from 13:50 GMT or on the 5 live Racing podcast, available to download from the5 live website.