You might not of heard of him but it was Pat Riley, former National Basketball Association player and now widely regarded as one of the finest NBA coaches of all time who said: “excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better”, and in Paul Nicholls there is living proof that Pat Riley was pretty well on the mark.
I’m not widely experienced in racing or life for that matter, and being the ripe old age of 21 I’m sure you’ll forgive me for that, but with a shared passion for sport with my Dad I’d like to think I have studied a number of pretty good sportsmen, women and managers with him from the comfort of the sofa.
The majority of high achievers are uniquely talented in their chosen disciplines but certain values lie deep rooted in all of them.
Passion, determination and competitive spirit are qualities I see in all of these people, and if you study Paul then what you see he is a man equaled by very few.
Uniquely talented of course, but his drive gives him that edge, he possesses the skills that makes him a truly special leader and a man without whom I wouldn’t be working in racing.
I grew up watching Paul and the irrepressible Ruby Walsh making a mockery of Saturday racing, winning Grade Ones just for sheer sport with superstars, the like of which were all horses of a lifetime.
The modern day history-making Kauto Star, the tank Denman (pictured), the hard-as-nails fighter See More Business, the laughably classy winning machine that was Big Buck’s, the sheer beauty of Call Equiname, the raw power of Master Minded, the recent achievements of the durable Silvinaco Conti or the guts and stamina of the gallant grey Neptune Collonges.
Nine King Georges, four Gold Cups, five Champion Chases, four World Hurdles, three Hennessy Gold Cups, a Grand National, nine Tingle Creeks, over 100 Grade Ones, well over two and a half thousand winners, and 40 Cheltenham Festival winners to name a few of Paul’s achievements.
The remarkable thing about these equine superstars was they all called Manor Farm Stables home and each one of them possessed a unique story and tale to tell, carefully crafted and carved out by the man at the top and his quite brilliant team which superbly assisted him over the years.
I know I’m not best placed to talk about Paul’s early career, mainly because discussions in the Derham house hold had not yet reached pondering child number two in 1991 at the time Paul moved into Manor Farm Stables having being given the chance of a lifetime by his landlord, and now great friend Mr Paul Barber.
Youtube is a wonderful thing though and having watched some of his videos as a jockey, not for a second questioning his accomplishments in winning two Hennessy Gold Cups, a Welsh National, an Irish Hennessy and quite spectacularly leading over Beechers Brook in the Grand National on Roman Bistro, I did always bite my tongue when style advice on my own riding technique was dispensed by the boss.
Do as I say not as I do I’m sure would have been his swift reply.
As with any great manager you are only as good as the team around you, something that Paul has always made damn sure he had right.
Clifford Baker, Paul’s head lad of around 20 years, is a man with whom you could set your clock by with the only difference being the clock is more than likely to run out of battery long before Clifford does.
Capable of eating his own body weight in food for a main course and then mine in cheese and a desert, there isn’t a moment that goes by where Clifford isn’t orchestrating the day-to-day routine that is required to be flawless in order for the Ditcheat standard to remain as dizzyingly high.
But Clifford isn’t the only one in fact he’s just the beginning.
Donna Hills, Gemma Groves and Andrew Doyle drive the horses racing, often to places not nearly as desirable as Ascot on a Saturday and those are long, dark hard miles clocked up by all three, caring for the horses as they travel.
Looking after the horses at home David Rochester, head lad of our second yard Highbridge and Rose Loxton, Clifford’s left hand in top yard and occasionally right when he’s very busy.
Don’t forget our two farriers, Tom Bougard and Dan Hubbard both with backs resembling the current state of the Labour party or Teresa Dufose who guides her caring hands over our weary and sometimes aching athletes.
Buffy Shirley Bevan whose watchful veterinary eye is cast over the horses before purchase and throughout their careers here in the yard, or Rob Lee who ensures the gallops await in perfect condition for the scores of horses about to use them.
Or the three fantastic women that run the office Lina Chadburn, Sarah West and Hannah Roche. Ladies that without their assistance I’d still be in front of my computer screen desperately trying to login and turn on Microsoft Excel.
I haven’t even mentioned our over excitable Ed Sheeran lookalike of a stable jockey who could make even the most disappointing of runs seem incredibly encouraging after kissing the owners, the owner’s friends and just about anyone else in the paddock for that matter.
And perhaps most importantly we must pay due thanks and celebrate the wonderfully diverse and ever-changing group of full time stable staff.
People come and go in this line of work, the reality being that in the bitterness of winter some people really can’t hack it.
To be honest on certain days coming back in from a third lot when you’re wetter than an otters pocket, I sometimes think they’re are the sensible ones, but this is a skilled and dangerous job and with that in mind the folk to my left deserve a huge amount of credit.
Twelve and a half days a fortnight is a lot of work but in those hours friendships are forged and memories created some of which will last a life time.
Be good for a year, and well you’ll be good, be successful for a couple and you might be considered very good, but you only become a great if you stand the hardest test of all, the test of time.
For over a decade Paul has sat at the top of the trainer’s championship, and throughout those 10 years of being a champion a great deal has happened. The ability to move with the times, never be out of touch or date with the media, you the owners is nearly as impressive as his training record itself…
Oh and just for the sake of the waiters and the three of you he hasn’t got round to telling he actually has well over 100 thousand followers on twitter.
For those of you not fortunate enough to count Paul as a friend, he is best described as a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, who is always trying to win, be it Taunton in November, Perth in May, Plumpton in January or Cheltenham in March.
Paul became champion by building a brilliant team around him, by pouring his heart and soul into this yard, the yard he loves and works endless hours striving to improve, while yearning to uncover the next superstar or the next winner.
There would be no point in me standing in front of you, the people that make all of this possible and describing his passion because whether you’re witnessing it at the races, a friend listening to him around a table or one of his team, that passion and drive is relentless and remains there in the gloom of a January morning.
There could be 10 horses schooling round the loop with the rain coming down in proportions known only to people that spend their winters outdoors, yet somehow through the darkness and the cold, even when the chips are down, he is an unstoppable driving force, making himself the king of the sport he loves.
Over my 21 years, I have been many things to Paul and I’m hopeful increasing with usefulness as the years have gone by.
I was at first a nephew who would watch on from the truck with him, having traveled down from my home an hour away with the ever-present rock and great man that is my Grandad.
I then served as one of his lucky jockeys, receiving the odd rollocking while managing to steer a couple of his “bloody well placed certainties” round a number of Saturday tracks.
I was pupil assistant for year and now, as assistant trainer, I believe I have found my real niche in his team.
Saddling the horses, representing him, getting in the way and helping with the day to day running of the yard are of course vital, but while at the wheel of the Range Rover is where I am at my most helpful to him, providing essential backing singing to Paul’s quite spine tingling version of Adele’s classics.
While he may continue to be controversially overlooked for The Voice, Paul has more significantly given a young man an opportunity to make a career of his first love while realizing a couple of his dreams.
He continues to inspire me to be better every single day, especially in the singing department.
To you the owners, a trainer, to me and others a boss, to many of us as a friend, and to all of us a champion.
Ladies and gentleman please all raise a glass with me and toast Paul the 10 times champion trainer.