A moderate start to December which has seen the eclipse of favourites in the Tingle Creek and Peterborough Chases has got tongues wagging about the strength of the Paul Nicholls operation, writes Rory Delargy. Are the doubters right to point to cracks in the façade, or is this merely another premature judgement on the country’s finest trainer of jumpers?
The first thing to do is compare the yard’s record this month with previous campaigns, and it’s immediately clear that he’s actually ahead of schedule with his hurdlers, with his total of five winners from 23 runners over timber this month comparing favourably with recent seasons, both in terms of winners and strike rate – in 2013 he had five winners from 44 runners in the entire month, and three from 24 the following year.
Those stats have been helped by an across-the-card double on Wednesday from just a brace of runners, but such doubles are not rare and show the folly of assuming a stable is out of form.
Nicholls Hurdlers in December 2010-2014
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2015 looks like being better than all but one of the above examples, and a couple of bizarre unseats, notably at Southwell the other day, have robbed him of at least one more winner, accepting that luck, either good or bad, will always have a part to play.
The figures don’t look so rosy when we look at the chasers in isolation, but the point to make before we move on to that aspect of the yard is that we can pretty much rule out sickness as an issue with the horses given that the yard is operating at a win and place strike rate of more than 50% with its hurdlers, a figure you will be unlikely to see if a yard is virus-affected.
The table below shows that following Nicholls runners over fences at this time of the year is usually a fruitful pursuit, but the score for 2015 stands at a paltry two wins from 31 runs for the yard’s chasers, and it’s hard to work out why that might be. One explanation may come from the lack of performers in the 170+ bracket in the yard.
In recent years, we’ve had Silviniaco Conti, Master Minded, Neptune Collonges, Kauto Star, Poquelin, Woolcombe Folly, Tidal Bay, Al Ferof, Sanctuaire and Dodging Bullets all achieving that rating based on Racing Post figures. This season, only the currently sidelined Dodging Bullets can get a figure north of 165.
Nicholls Chasers in December 2010-2014
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Saphir du Rheu was the Great White Hope for the stable this campaign, but he’s being rerouted to the World Hurdle, while Sound Investment, only fifth in the December Gold Cup at Cheltenham, is the best chaser to have run for the yard based on the numbers. That’s very unusual for Ditcheat squadron, and given Nicholls’ desire to make an impact on the biggest stage, a bunch of second-raters and novices aren’t going to plunder many major prizes in the short term.
Why the decline?
There is an underlying reason behind this decline in quality, and it has nothing to do with the trainer’s ability to get the best out of his horses (who would have put Old Guard down as a potential Champion Hurdler two months ago?). Rather, it seems to be because the big players are playing elsewhere.
There are twelve owners (or partnerships/syndicates etc) who have earned over £100,000 in prizemoney this season. Of those, only Old Guard’s connections are in Paul Nicholls’ camp, though Chris Giles and his Potensis horses have bullets to fire; and while he also trains a few for J P McManus, he’s very much a squad player for the “Sundance Kid”.
The megabucks owners, including those on the other side of the Irish Sea, are controlling more of the game, and snapping up horses which would once have been destined for the outskirts of Shepton Mallet. Gigginstown House Stud are picking the cream of the Irish point crop, while Rich Ricci has the mercurial Harold Kirk doing his bidding in France and elsewhere.
Ricci is based in the UK, but his horses are happy in County Carlow, and his decision to put one with Nicky Henderson is a signal of intent should he ever look to spread his load around.
Of those who kept the Ditcheat ship sailing merrily through the last two decades, Clive Smith has gone; John Hales remains, but has his best horse now with Dan Skelton; Paul Barber has greatly reduced his interests; leaving Andy Stewart as the yard’s biggest owner, not just in his famous black white and red silks, but as a partner in Old Guard whom he shares with others including Jeremy Kyle.
Kyle has been dragged on telly numerous times as some kind of saviour for the sport as a terrestrial television product, but it’s doubtful his investment will ever make the difference between success and failure for a yard with the history of Manor Farm. Nicholls needs to find new blood if he’s to challenge again for the trainer’s title he once annexed, and he needs to do it soon.
Time waits for no man, and while the fortunes of the stable remain reasonably solid, there is a host of young, impressive trainers making their mark. Harry Whittington unleashed another winning newcomer at Newbury in midweek, while Ben Pauling was also on the scoresheet, and the latter has been quietly building a foundation for success which he looks sure to build on considerably. Nicky Henderson’s former assistant is affable, knowledgeable and hard-working, and he’s set to make a major splash.
Dan Skelton has been tipped as a future champion despite setting up only eighteen months ago, and the number of quality ex-Flat horses available to the big yards has been reduced since John Ferguson turned his hand to training under Rules. The last-named is no threat to Nicholls’ dominance with chasers as yet, but it’s again interesting to note how the Ditcheat domination has been eroded.
Looking at the record of all trainers in UK non-handicap chases (essentially a measure of stable strength) since 2010 makes interesting reading:
Runners in non-handicap chases 2010-2014
It can be seen that Nicholls dominates the division by numbers of runners and winners, with only Nicky Henderson of the leading trainers even able to match his strike rate.
Runners in non-handicap chases 2015
At first glance this looks like good news again – Nicholls has more than two and a half times as many winners in non-handicaps than his nearest rival, but that’s partly due to the massive fall off in horses sent chasing by Henderson. A close look at those seemingly toiling shows that five of the next six on the list are operating at a better percentage than the leader.
Essentially Nicholls is able to play the numbers game with his steeplechasers, but the resistance to his position of power is growing, and only an injection of fresh quality will fend them off for long.
- Rory Delargy