We may have only just stepped into December, but already the Jump Racing Trainers Championship looks to be heading in a familiar direction.
After a steady start to the latest campaign Paul Nicholls and his team have put in a commanding performance in recent weeks. This had the look of a transitional season for Team Ditcheat, with a stable full of young new talent, but that doesn’t seem to have affected the Champion’s relentless drive for success. Nicholls truly is the ‘Sir Alex’ of National Hunt racing.
Over the past few weeks major Saturday prizes have been won including the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, the Amlin Chase, Betfair Chase and Paddy Power Gold Cup. These victories have seen him move over £100,000 clear at the head of the trainers’ title race. And the dominant form of the yard shows no sign of stopping.
Early entries over December suggest the flow of winners is sure to continue. Exciting young chasers Saphir Du Rheu and Ptit Zig are both due to run this week. Irish Saint will be one of the favourites for the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown on Saturday, and Dodging Bullets has every chance in an open looking Tingle Creek the same day. While at Aintree this weekend, Rebel Rebellion and Rolling Aces are both well fancied for the Grand Sefton.
The following weekend will see Caid Du Berlais hoping to add the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at Cheltenham to his ‘Paddy Power’ win. Then of course over Christmas Silviniaco Conti and Al Ferof will be aimed at bringing Ditcheat yet another King George.
Philip Hobbs is the only trainer within a ‘furlong’ in the title race. His lofty status has been aided by the ‘older statesmen’ in the yard. The trio of Captain Chris, Menorah and Wishfull Thinking are all entered in the King George on Boxing Day. Indeed the latter could yet turn-up in the Tingle Creek. But beyond those three stalwarts the team appears to lack the necessary strength in depth to maintain a challenge. Chance Du Roy heads for the Becher Chase at Aintree and Persian Snow is aimed at the Grand Sefton. These two arrows would likely need to hit the bullseye to keep the Somerset trainer in touch.
A dreadful November appears to have put paid to Jonjo’s challenge for the top trainers’ crown. In fairness the master of Jackdaws Castle would be the first to admit that he is in no position to challenge the firepower of a Nicholls or Henderson. O’Neill is very similar in his approach to David Pipe, in that they have to target specific races, often handicaps, and he will no doubt already be plotting a path for several in his yard to major pots at Cheltenham in March.
So what of Nicky Henderson and his challenge for a second trainers’ championship in three years? There’s little doubt that his title aspirations have stalled, and currently standing fifth in the championship race the chances of catching his great rival already appear slim. Two of his stable stars Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig have already had their intended returns delayed and Bobs Worth is set to have another light campaign, probably starting off in Ireland.
Last season’s promising novices Beat That and Josses Hill have yet to reappear, the latter set to return in the new year after a few health issues. The loss of My Tent Or Yours for the season was a further blow to a yard that has been hit by a series of injuries to high-profile inmates. The stable had a quiet Newbury by their standards though Henderson did unveil two decent looking novice hurdlers on the Friday of the meeting.
A quick look at his early entries for December gives little hope of a major upturn in fortunes. Oscar Whisky looks to be the trainer’s best hope of a major prize in the Tingle Creek. The Seven Barrows team will be hoping for a change of luck in 2015 and with it, a return to action of some of the sports leading lights.
I must add that Nicky Henderson’s strike-rate still stands at near 25%, and that’s nothing to be sniffed at.
It’s probably fair to say that for many trainers a crack at the championship is unrealistic, and for many others it is at the back of their thoughts as the season begins. But for those that love the sport and study the best at work, there’s little doubt that finishing the season on top remains a driving force for Paul Nicholls.
The thrilled expression at yet another big win is of course part gratitude to a superb team and a group of wonderful owners, but more, that Nicholls simply loves the win. It’s that relentless obsession that the great possess. Paul Nicholls and Sir Alex Ferguson are figures from two different sports, with such similarities in approach and of course results. Unlike the famous Scot, Nicholls shows no sign of stopping any time soon.