2 April 2006

Paul Nicholls is at the very peak of his powers. He is 44 this month, one which should end with him being crowned for the first time as champion trainer. His method is to look horses, life, training and records very directly in the face. Just as well too as, until Royal Auclair’s second last year, his Grand National record was about as bad as it could be.

After his first entry Just So turned over at the sixth fence in 1992, he went 11 years and 15 runners before Montifault’s fifth in 2003 became the Dorset stable’s first completion. Such statistics do not daunt the former jockey who in 14 years has transformed the little village of Ditcheat into a beehive of clip-clopping activity and success. In this year’s National, Royal Auclair again included, he runs seven.

“They are not just running for the sake of it,” he says looking across the yard. “They are all in the handicap, and while none of them are favourites [Royal Auclair is bracketed with stable companions Cornish Rebel and Silver Birch at 20-1], they all have a chance if everything went their way. Those statistics just show you that the most important thing round Aintree is to have a bit of luck.”

It was Thursday morning, nine days before the tapes will go up on the world’s most famous annual cavalry charge and 250 million viewers around the globe will hold their breath. The BBC cameras were down to film the Nicholls team and to quiz the trainer. Normally there is talk of nervous times and walking on egg shells. Not here, not this time. Nicholls long ago adopted the policy of telling it how it is. Horses are treated with affection, understanding, attention to detail and a healthy dose of realism.

The lean chesnut shape of Royal Auclair heads the Aintree septet as they circle the yard. “Of course he can’t beat Hedgehunter on his run in the Gold Cup last time or on last year’s National form. But he is a good horse, jumps Aintree and is an obvious contender.”

The craggy, broken-nosed features of Christian Williams are aboard Royal Auclair as they will be on Saturday. In Cornish Rebel’s saddle is National jockey Joe Tizzard, as he was in the Gold Cup when the nine-year-old was going so well, until blundering badly three fences from home, that an emulation of his full brother Best Mate still looked possible. “We all know he’s a bit quirky,” says Nicholls, “but if he were to take to the place, well, he has got plenty of talent and although he hit fences at Cheltenham he has never fallen in his life.”

As the trainer rattles through his list the Aintree factor keeps rearing its head. The fences may be a touch more welcoming and the class of runner higher than in recent years but with 30 runners, 30 obstacles demand a completely different rhythm from an ordinary race and long shots still feature. Aintree can bring out the best in them.

Silver Birch looked the perfect candidate when he won over the fences last season but his last two efforts have been abject. “It may be his wind,” says Nicholls. “We are trying tying his tongue down. If the ground is not too testing and he jumps like he can again…”

That hopeful shaking of the head is repeated on Eurotrek: “His Warwick win would give him a decent chance; we just have to excuse him getting bogged down at Haydock.” On former top two-and-a-half-miler Le Roi Miguel: “Obviously it’s much further than he has been, but if he gets into a rhythm and takes to it…” On Le Duc, last seen when flattening Ruby Walsh in January: “He loves Aintree, been second and third over the fences. You can’t count him out.” Even on last year’s eighth-placed Heros Collonges: “He made a mistake at the first; with a clear run round he could be thereabouts.”

The bulletins are delivered with the confidence of a man coming to the end of a season when his stable are topping the table in both winners, 136, and prize money, £2.1 million, and seem certain finally to wrest the championship away from the hands of Martin Pipe.

“People always ask about me and the trainer’s championship,” he says, “just as they are asking about the National now. But it’s really all about team work. Trusting each other and getting things right every day. We’ve improved our gallops by laying a polytrack surface but our system hasn’t changed and key players like Georgina [Bown, the stable secretary] and Clifford [Baker – head man] have been with me for yonks.”

Easy words but it needs atmosphere as well as statistics to back them up. A morning at Ditcheat brings plenty of smiles with it. Tizzard remembers his first National ride as a 17-year-old – “I must have been frightened, I was last over the first.” Stable jockey [and Hedgehunter’s partner] Ruby Walsh recalls riding race favourite Shotgun Willy unsuccessfully for the yard in 2003, “there was never any space early on, it can be a whore of a job if you are not going well, horses and people all over the place. It was a bit different on Hedgehunter.”

On second lot I am aboard a promising animal rejoicing in the name of Hot N’Holy who won his opening hurdle race a week ago. As we clatter along the road towards the famous Ditcheat Hill gallop, team member Ally Holland is talking of the hassles of leading up at Aintree, of how she spent 20 minutes searching for her horse Flaked Oats when he fell in 2000.

Ally is still talking as we wing up towards the skyline. Mad, muddled and uncertain though it may be, the National remains the race apart.

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