In the slightly dotty world of jump racing, Paul Nicholls has ticked just about every box, yet the fixation on possibly the most uninspiring trophy to look at outside of cricket’s Ashes remains.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup weighs 644 grams of nine carat gold and is plated in 18 carat gold. No matter the actual size – its stature is immense.
For Nicholls – master of 13 championships – training the fastest horse over the 22 fences, up hill and down dale, over three and a quarter miles of the Boodles-sponsored Gold Cup is the Holy Grail.
“I would love to win the Gold Cup,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to win it four times, but I’d love to win it again.
“It’s hard to describe what it feels like to go to that winner’s enclosure when you win a Gold Cup. It is like a drug and you want it again.”
See More Business (1999), Denman (2008) and Kauto Star (2007 and 2009) brought the trophy to Ditcheat, Somerset, and he will rely this time on the aptly-named Bravemansgame.
Winner of six of his seven starts over fences, he has been seen just twice on a racecourse this season, landing both the Charlie Hall at Wetherby and the King George VI Chase at Kempton.
He has raced beyond a three-mile trip just once before and it produced his sole defeat, when last of four to Ahoy Senor at Aintree in April.
“I think we have a nice team for Cheltenham,” said Nicholls. “But to have a real, live chance in the Gold Cup is the most important thing to me.
“That’s what we do it for, that’s the most exciting thing. That is what I am really looking forward to.”
The eight-year-old Bravemansgame gives Nicholls arguably his best chance in 14 years of winning the blue riband for a fifth time. It looks an open contest, with current favourite Galopin Des Champs also not having raced beyond three miles and last year’s champion A Plus Tard having an interrupted preparation.
“I think we have a lovely chance,” Nicholls said of the John Dance and Bryan Drew-owned gelding.
“It is a competitive race. We have got to step up again, but I think we are in there with a chance.
“He is good fresh, so we didn’t need to run him in between his last run on Boxing Day and now.
“He won the Charlie Hall, he won the King George. You’ve got to stay to win those races, so I don’t think the trip is going to be a problem.
“Galopin Des Champs is a bit like Bravemansgame – they both galloped strong through the line in the races they ran over Christmas, so it would be interesting.”
Cheltenham, of course, is all about the Irish invasion. Increasingly so, in fact – two years ago Irish runners won 23 of the 28 races across the week.
The Irish make this a special place – and have had a vice-like grip on the prize-money in recent years, with Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Henry de Bromhead leading the charge.
Mullins won a record 10 races last year and is the most successful trainer at the meeting, victorious 88 times.
Competing against the Irish battalions, never mind beating them, brings pressure, as Nicholls concedes.
“Cheltenham is a hard week – it is hard to prepare and people think Cheltenham is the be-all and end-all of everything,” he said.
“You don’t feel the pressure, but it is there, isn’t it? You’ve got to deal with it and I think we deal with it quite well.
“We have some great horses in this country and some great racing. We just have to stop worrying about what the Irish are doing and just focus on what we do, and we will be a lot better off.”
There are several stables, particularly over the Irish Sea, where there is a concentration of firepower. It is not uncommon to see Mullins and Elliott having multiple runners in each race.
Nicholls and Nicky Henderson dominate in Britain, yet the champion fears the sport suffers for the assembled talent in a select few yards.
“Can you imagine, if in every race me or Nicky had six runners or 10 in a handicap? People would go mad. It is not good for racing. It wouldn’t work in this country.
“Myself, Nicky and Dan Skelton have good teams, but we don’t completely take over everything and have six in every race.
“I wouldn’t want that and I couldn’t train that number of horses, 150 for us is plenty to do it properly.
“The Irish are having a good run at Cheltenham. It doesn’t change overnight. It will take two or three years to turn things around. Nicky has a few nice chances. Dan has, too.
“It is probably cyclical. All those years ago when I had all those super ones that won everything, it was probably the other way then.
“I’m sure it will turn, but I’m not bothered. We just get on with our own thing and do the best with what we’ve got.”
It seems odds-on that Nicholls will add to his 46 Festival winners, with the likes of Hermes Allen (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle), Irish Hill (Coral Cup), Hitman (Ryanair Chase), Il Ridoto (Magners Plate Handicap Chase) and Secret Investor (St James’s Place Festival Hunters’ Chase) all having leading chances.
Yet Nicholls admits he would swap another championship for a Gold Cup and his ambition to train the most National Hunt winners in Britain remains undiminished.
He added: “I want to train 4,000 winners and would love to keep on winning the championship, but I’d dearly love to win another Gold Cup.
“You just need to keep doing your best, keep training loads of winners.
“We are only about 400 off training 4,000 GB jump winners and nobody has done that, so that would be a nice thing to do.
“All those things drive you, but to win another Gold Cup would cap it all.”