UK markets closed

Fergie’s advice helps Nicholls plot his Cheltenham challenge

British Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls poses with Dynamite Dollars, one of his Cheltenham Festival hopefuls

You don't need to look far when you visit Paul Nicholls's Manor Farm Stables to be reminded of his success, writes James Toney.

The great and late Kauto Star's honours board hangs adjacent to the first stable on the right, from where he won the Gold Cup twice and the King George VI Chase a record five times, becoming the most successful steeplechaser of the modern era in the process.

There's an old-world charm to Nicholls's operation in the heart of rural Somerset. When winter bites, pupil assistant trainer Harry Derham is out early in the morning gritting the roads, sometimes by shovel when the 'third-hand machinery' breaks - as it often does.

Those riding out come wrapped up in their own gear as a succession of lots leave to take on the gallops around a village that lives and breathes racing and the equine triumphs of their famous neighbours.

Nicholls's days start early and meetings with connections are often held in the snug bar of the Manor House Inn, where close friend and loyal owner Sir Alex Ferguson is rumoured to like the ham, eggs and chips.

It's all in stark contrast to the multi-million-pound Jackdaws Castle operation of Jonjo O'Neill, with its scrubbed and cushioned surfaces, no Jonjo horse ever sees a road, hospitality centre and branding everywhere.

Nicholls's office overflows with old copies of the Racing Post and post-it notes, Jonjo prefers the paperless approach of an upwardly mobile provincial accountants.

On initial impressions these two operations look as far removed as Manchester United and Mangotsfield United but Nicholls has won seven Champion Trainer titles in the last decade, which makes his trophy cabinet a bit bigger than the one at Old Trafford.

However, until last year's Ryanair Chase win with Frodon he'd not landed a top grade one at the Festival for four years - an unprecedented streak in his career.

"I remember Sir Alex Ferguson telling me about how sport was cyclical, you just had to trust your judgement and instincts and keep working hard," he said.

"I know how hard it is to get your best horses to the best races in the best form, I know what that pressure is like and it didn't do any harm to not feel it for a couple of years.

"Cheltenham is a tough week - it's the very best competition you can have and yet you don't get a winner and people say you've failed. The season starts in August, I'm not thinking about Cheltenham then but it's still what people want to talk about."

It's been 13 years since Nicholls won the first of three consecutive Gold Cups, Kauto Star's two wins sandwiched by his equally brilliant stable rival Denman's success in heady days for Nicholls and his team.

This time he heads to Prestbury Park with Clans Des Obeaux as his big hope, the horse having landed his trainer an 11th win in the prestigious King George VI Chase at Kempton.

In most other years a back-to-back winner in racing's Christmas showpiece would have earned favourites' status for the Gold Cup.

And yet Nicholl’s charge is a distant fifth in the market, meaning his handler arrives flying under the radar.

"People say he doesn’t like Cheltenham, but he hasn’t run too badly there and hopefully we can put that winning stat right when it matters," he said.

"He was fifth in last year's Gold Cup but we've had a different preparation and he's a year older and more experienced.

"He is very effective when fit and fresh and I think we've got that combination spot on, he could be lethal.

"He'll probably be ridden differently and we've learned our lessons with what works. I've been thrilled with how he is working."