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The phenomenon of Paul Nicholls

Paul Nicholls

Having recorded the new BetConnect podcast on Monday, I thought I’d draw out some of the thoughts from that day in a, sort of, review of 2019. A little bit on Paul Nicholls, the upcoming King George and then Envoi Allen with 2020 in mind.

Paul Nicholls is, for my money, one of the most interesting guys in racing. He’s driven to the point of obsession and, unlike most of his peers, really has started from nothing. That’s not to say that guys like Nicky Henderson or Willie Mullins wouldn’t have been successful regardless, but having famous fathers has certainly done them no harm over the years. Nicholls’ father was a policeman and, whilst Paul wasn’t entering the training ranks completely cold having been a jockey prior to that, he certainly didn’t have the blue chip connections of the aforementioned.

Over the last few years, Nicholls’ career has reminded me a lot of his great friend Sir Alex Ferguson. Most pointedly in his ability to get the most out of a team, or horses, who perhaps are missing some of the raw talent of those in other stables. Ferguson famously won the league in 2013 and of course David Moyes couldn’t get in the top six the following year.

A canny campaigner

Between 2013 and 2018 the team of horses at Ditcheat were a long way from the likes of Mullins, Henderson or Gordon Elliott. And yet, through sheer force of will he managed to win the jump trainers’ championship on three occasions in that period. He didn’t have many stable stars, but he campaigned his horses efficiently and cannily, often the beneficiary of under-subscribed races where he spotted an opportunity to capitalise.

He’s since changed his approach in sourcing horses, something he blazed the trail for in the mid 2000s, before falling foul of more flush owners elsewhere. He’s also now got the best jockey in the country riding for him in Harry Cobden. Sam Twiston-Davies, Harry’s predecessor, is an excellent jockey in his own right but you sensed there was an unease about the partnership. Sam’s a lovely guy, but definitely a sensitive chap and you often felt he was on the back foot with the stronger-willed Nicholls.

Harry’s swagger

Cobden, for all he too seems a decent sort has more of an edge to him and I’ve often sensed a Ruby-Walsh-esque swagger about his personality. He knows just how good he is and he seems laid back enough that the famous Nicholls hair-dryer won’t affect him too badly. It looks a partnership set to last.

That partnership will of course come to the fore in the King George on Boxing Day. Although it hasn’t been confirmed, Cobden is obviously going to ride Cyrname. The nature of the race itself strikes me as being very simple to predict. A small field, and Cyrname will lead. Nobody else would be able to lie up with him and it would seem inadvisable for them to try. I don’t think Cyrname has it in him to go steadily so I think it’s safe to assume a good gallop, at a minimum.

The question, ultimately, is whether he will stay the trip. Official ratings and my own ratings have him upwards of half a stone in hand of his likely rivals. I mentioned this on the podcast, but the whole question of whether a horse stays is ultimately relative. Cyrname would “stay” three-and-a-half miles if he were up against vastly inferior horses. The real question is whether a horse is fully effective over a certain trip.

I don’t think Cyrname will be at his absolute best here but, when I have his ability level in the low 180s and the ability of others in the low 170s, he won’t have to be. It’s going to be a nail-biting watch in those dying furlongs but my instinct is he’ll have enough to hang on.

A bright future: Envoi Allen

Envoi Allen has the most ability of any horse in training. A big statement, but one that will hopefully bear fruit in 2020. He won the Champion Bumper last season, making all and fending off the challenge of the pacier Blue Sari. The nature of bumpers, based on my own research, is that the most success tends to lie with horses who will end up at their best over the intermediate trip. There’s a stamina element to bumpers of course, but they’re often steadily run enough that tactical pace comes into play.

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Based on his stride, breeding and physique I think Envoi Allen will be a staying chaser in time. Not an out-and-out stayer, but of the Kauto Star mould where he’ll get by over three miles but probably be equally proficient over shorter. For Envoi Allen to be winning races over the minimum trip, over hurdles, against the likes of Abracadbras (who looks built for hurdles and that trip) is testament to the fact that he has an extreme level of ability.

It looks like he’s going over the intermediate trip on his next start and that’s a wise decision, but my instinct is that he’s good enough to win wherever he goes. Not exactly a dark horse to follow, but I think, for all the hype, he could yet be underrated.

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