Paul Nicholls has come a long way since he arrived at Manor Farm Stables in Ditcheat, Somerset with just eight horses. With the possible exception of his landlord, Paul Barber, no-one could really have predicted his rise to the top of his profession, where he has remained for over two decades. Nicholls did not become Champion National Hunt Trainer for the first time until 2005/06, but has done so a further eleven times since and remains one of just three men – the other two being Martin Pipe, who retired in 2006, and Nicky Henderson – to have won the trainers’ title since the turn of the century.
As far as the Cheltenham Festival is concerned, Nicholls has saddled 46 winners and until 2021, when he drew a blank, had saddled at least one winner every year since 2002. He has won the Leading Trainer Award at the Cheltenham Festival six times, including on 1999, the year in which he saddled his first winner at the March showpiece. His first winner was, in fact, Flagship Uberalles in the Arkle Challenge Trophy on the opening day, but he also saddled Call Equiname to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase and See More Business to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup later in the week.
The record for training the most Grand National winners is currently held, jointly, by George Dockeray, Fred Rimmell and Donald ‘Ginger’ McCain, who all saddled four winners apiece. However, the current trainer who has won the Grand National most often is Gordon Elliott, who has, so far, saddled three winners.
Indeed, Elliott also holds the record for the youngest trainer to saddle a Grand National winner. He was just 29 – and, remarkably, yet to saddle a winner in his native Ireland – when he sent out Silver Birch to win the Aintree showpiece in 2007, just months after taking out a training licence. Elliott had to wait a few years for his next Grand National winner, but saddled winners two and three in rapid succession, courtesy of Tiger Roll in 2018 and 2019.
Of course, in recent months, Elliott has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. In March, 2021, he was found guilty of bring racing into disrepute, had his training licence suspended for six months and was fined €15,000 after a photograph of him sitting astride a dead horse went viral. To his credit, he accepted his punishment without appealing, saying, ‘I am paying a very heavy price for my error, but I have no complaints.’
In March, 2021, just a week before the start of the Cheltenham Festival, Co. Meath trainer Gordon Elliott was banned for a year – the last six months of which were suspended – by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) for bringing the sport into disrepute. The ban, which was reciprocated by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), followed an investigation into a photograph, widely circulated on social media, showing Elliott cheerfully sitting astride a dead horse. The horse in question was later revealed to be Morgan, a 7-year-old owned by Gigginstown House Stud, who died of a suspected heart attack on the gallops at Elliot’s Cullentra House Stables.
Elliott apologised, more than once, for what he described as an ‘indefensible moment of madness’ and accepted his punishment, which also included €15,000 in court costs, without appealing. Nevertheless, several high-profile owners, including Simon Munir, Isaac Souede and Cheveley Park Stud, removed their horses from the yard and severed all ties with Elliott. Elliott was allowed to return to training on September 9, 2021 and, at the time of writing, has already made his first entries ahead of his return to racing. Of the owners who left, Elliott said, ‘I still speak to them all and the gate is always open. I understand completely why they had to go.’
Commemorated by the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, run annually at the Cheltenham Festival, David Nicholson was the son of Herbert ‘Frenchie’ Nicholson, a renowned National Hunt jockey and trainer in the first half of the twentieth century. Nicknamed ‘The Duke’ from an early age, because of his aloof, sometimes arrogant, demeanour, David Nicholson was also a successful National Hunt jockey, with 583 winners to his name.
However, to a modern audience, David Nicholson is probably better known as one of the leading trainers of his generation. He turned to training at Condicote, Gloucestershire in 1968 and saddled his first winner, Arctic Coral, whom he also rode, at Warwick the following January. By the time of his retirement from the training ranks in 1999, Nicholson had saddled a total of 1,499 winners and won the National Hunt Trainers’ Championship twice, in 1993/94 and 1994/95. Indeed, he was the only trainer to interrupt the sequence of trainers’ titles won by Martin Pipe from 1989/90 onwards.
At the Cheltenham Festival, Nicholson saddled 17 winners, most notably winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Charter Party in 1988 and back-to-back renewals of the Queen Mother Champion Chase with Viking Flagship in 193 and 1995. Elsewhere, he also win the King George VI Chase at Kempton with Barton Bank in 1993 and was unlucky not to do so with the same horse in 1994; Barton Bank was clear of his rivals when blundering badly and unseating jockey Adrian Maguire at the final fence.