The record books show that Paul Nicholls has won all four championship races at the Cheltenham Festival. A brilliant feat, no doubt.
Call Equiname gave the Ditcheat trainer his first when winning the Champion Chase back in 1999 before Azertyuiop (2004) and Master Minded (2008 and 2009) added three more in that particular race.
Just days after Call Equiname’s Champion Chase success, See More Business gave Nicholls a first Gold Cup, a championship trophy which would also return three times through the exploits of Kauto Star (2007 and 2009) and Denman (2008).
Big Buck’s remains Nicholls’ only World Hurdle winner but his four victories (2009-2012) ensure he’s the winningmost trainer in the race.
So, coming into this year’s Cheltenham Festival he was just a Champion Hurdle shy of the full complement and that was put right by the impressive performance of Rock On Ruby. Or was it?
Perhaps it was ignorance on my part, but I didn’t realise that Champion Hurdler Rock On Ruby was trained at a ‘satellite yard’ and not in Ditcheat, where he would be under the constant scrutiny of the British champion trainer.
It never crossed my mind to question it — why would it?
Possibly not the biggest deal in the world, after all he was still under the tutelage of one of the best trainers in the business and his influence over the horse would be strong.
In the post-race interviews, however, it became increasingly obvious the horse was being trained by Harry Fry, under the stewardship of Richard Barber, under the sometimes stewardship of Paul Nicholls.
In fact, the following quote from Harry Fry puts into question just how much influence Nicholls actually exerts: “Paul comes down here when he can, but we have all the facilities here and we are left to our own devices. We always liaise regarding race planning as there is no point taking each other on if we don’t have to.”
The language is quite distinct, as, it would seem, is the line of separation.
If ‘Paul comes down here when he can’ equates to training the horse, I can make similar claims to having reared my nieces and nephews, having babysat them a couple of times.
Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but it raises question marks.
The assertion that there is ‘no point in taking each other on’ also indicates independent operations, as does a further revelation from Fry that: ’We look after 25 in the satellite yard, mostly the ones we sourced ourselves which is why they stay with us. Some are sent to us by Paul if they won’t go up his gallop, for instance”.
The more I heard, the more it sounded to me like Nicholls has had little or no interaction with some of the 25 horses. Look, this isn’t intended to be a slight on Paul Nicholls, or Harry Fry or Richard Barber and theirs isn’t the first instance of the use of a satellite yard, but the distinction between the two yards seems absolute and it’s just another case of information that punters should be party to from the outset.
Coming into this year’s Festival, there were doubts over the well-being of the Nicholls team, with reports of some of the string coughing. That was a major concern and one which proved well-founded as a number of the horses failed to fire at all or didn’t pick up in the manner expected.
Did horses from one yard run better than the ones from the other? The answer shouldn’t matter. It’s not something punters should have to concern themselves with because the situation should never arise.
Would I be as inclined to back a Harry Fry or Richard Barber horse in a championship race as I would a Paul Nicholls horse? Maybe. Maybe not. But, at the very least, I’d like to feel safe in the knowledge that whatever the name beside the horse, it is that of the actual trainer. I don’t think that’s asking too much, is it?
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