The Ditcheat handler produced a training performance to match all previous achievements when winning yesterday’s Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase with Dodging Bullets.
The seven-year-old, who has earned some unflattering monikers for consistently failing to deliver on his promise when tried at the highest level, capped a remarkably successful season with the type of battling performance most believed the gelding did not possess.
Prominent throughout, under stable jockey Sam Twiston-Davies, he moved to challenge three out, overcame a mistake at the second last, and gave generously in the finish to comfortably see off the challenge of Somersby and gallant front runner Special Tiara.
The winner, a 9-2 chance, twice a winner on the flat for Andy Oliver, was completing a hat-trick of Grade One victories, following similarly smooth successes in the Tingle Creek and Clarence House chases.
A delighted Nicholls explained how he got to the bottom of the previously enigmatic gelding’s issues: “I thought in his first race at Cheltenham this season that he couldn’t get beaten but he jumped the last and got tired on the run-up — he blew up. I just didn’t have him right.
“We had treated him for gastric ulcers in the spring and I began to think that I was being too easy on him because he was a bit buzzy, so I wasn’t able to train him hard enough.
“Before the Tingle Creek, I was able to stoke the work into him and I saw a lot of improvement. He is now a lot fitter and more relaxed, and today he was as big and strong as I have seen him looking.
“I think, on form, he should have been favourite. He won the Tingle Creek at Sandown and then the Clarence House at Ascot, beating Sprinter Sacre, and I couldn’t see that horse turning around the form with us.
“But, Sam gave him a terrific ride. He has settled into the job very nicely and done extremely well. Someone said he will last me until I retire — but I hope it’s not that long,” he joked. “He is a very good lad who I hope will be part of the team for a long time.”
Dodging Bullets was bred by a certain Frankie Dettori, and the former champion flat jockey admitted it was nerve-wracking viewing.
“I got really excited – it’s like watching my beloved Arsenal,” said the effervescent breeder. “I’m used to being on the horses, not watching from the stands, and it’s quite nerve-wracking. When I came down the steps my legs were shaking.
“I can say I bred the best jump horse of 2015. But I’m just a small part of this story, and I’m so pleased for Paul, and for Sam, who gave him a great ride, and for his owners.”
As the excitement had unfolded at the winning post, former champion and favourite Sprinter Sacre was walking away, having been pulled up at the last by Barry Geraghty. The former champion travelled keenly early but never jumped with his old exuberance, and was beaten once the pressure was applied.
Trainer Nicky Henderson was quick to rule out a recurrence of his heart issues: “I would be very surprised if Sprinter Sacre’s heart was wrong since that has never been an issue since the day it happened at Kempton.
“He will be scoped now and I suspect something will come to light. It is not his heart.”
“No predictions can be made about what his future will be. But, if we can find a switch to get rid of whatever is wrong with him today, then who knows.
Sire De Grugy, who lost his crown with his fourth-place finish, will be back in action sooner rather than later. A philosophical Gary Moore said: “He’ll be alright. He has been beaten, but it happens. He’ll run again this season.”
However, that’s it for the season for the winner, who will be given a well-earned break.
“Dodging Bullets won’t run again this year,” confirmed Nicholls. “The big aim will be to try and defend his crown here next year. He needs to be fresh and I’ve been quite hard on him.
“Over the years I have learned that the worst thing you can do after winning one of these championship races is to run again and almost sort of ruin what they have done. He is a champion and we can dream about that all summer.”
Yes, Dodging Bullets is the Champion. Make of that what you will, but credit must go to Nicholls, for a masterful training performance.