Trainers’ title fight will define a spectacular jumps season

By The Newsroom
Friday, 7th December 2012, 12:28 pm

NOTHING annoys me more in racing than the habit of comparing the Flat and the Jumps. Ranking one code ahead of the other which, similarly and inevitably, also leads to denigrating one or the other.

Not so long ago, the racing media became obsessed with championing the cause of the National Hunt game, at the expense of the Flat.

Award-winning journalist Lee Mottershead, announced on TV, without any reference to reality, that “everyone knows Flat racing is in crisis”. Fellow ‘Racing Post’ hack Alastair Down rarely wasted a moment in his celebrated columns to promote his apparent disdain for racing on the level. And the ‘Post’ itself ran an infamous poll, asking readers to vote for their favourite code.

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The Flat finished second -- hardly surprising given that National Hunt racing’s drawbacks rarely receive a public airing. Drawbacks that include its failure to emerge from the dark ages to embrace 48-hour declarations, its infuriating habit of omitting fences because of low sun or cosmetic damage and the unedifying sight of exhausted horses slogging it out in the mud at the end of marathon chases.

Conveniently omitted from the ‘Racing Post’ poll was a third voting option, which I’m sure most racegoers and punters would have plumped for -- namely savouring BOTH codes with equal enthusiasm.

That’s the camp I belong to. So after another vintage season of Flat racing, spearheaded again by the mighty FRANKEL, what a pleasure it has been to revel in such a spectacular start to the Jumps campaign over the past month.

The action has been stirring stuff. It started with one of the best Paddy Power Gold Cups of all time, won by AL FEROF. It continued with SILVINIACO CONTI’S classy taming of LONG RUN in the Betfair Chase. And it scaled new heights with last weekend’s rousing Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, which announced BOBS WORTH as a genuine contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup next March.

Other horses, both here and in Ireland, already top class or aspiring to greatness, are queueing up to show their hands too. Indeed, touching wood, I can’t remember a season where so many of Jumps racing’s potential stars are fit and healthy, and so few have succumbed to injury.

But never mind the horses, what of the real signatory thread through which the 2012/13 National Hunt season in the UK will be defined?

I refer to the trainers’ championship. The race for the title between Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson.

In years to come, I am sure racing history will write that we were fortunate enough to be part of the generation that basked in the skills of two of the finest trainers the sport has known. Stir the Irish genius that is Willie Mullins into the mix and it is clear we are truly blessed with an era of unparalleled talent.

The three aforementioned big races were all won by either Nicholls or Henderson. There won’t be a Saturday go by between now and the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals without more of the same. And come Cheltenham itself, racegoers hardly need look any further than the triumvirate of Nicholls, Henderson and Mullins. It’s dot-to-dot punting.

The dominance of Nicholls and Henderson in the big races and the major meetings in the UK is such that trainers considered rivals just a few years ago -- the likes of Philip Hobbs, Alan King, David Pipe and Jonjo O’Neill -- are no longer operating on the same planet.

Of course, the yards of Hobbs, King, Pipe, Jonjo et al still house many fine horses. But only the emergence of Donald McCain can be considered a serious challenge to Nicholls and Henderson. King even admitted in his very readable ‘Racing Post Weekender’ column a few weeks ago that he has written off trying to compete with the big two.

So which of those two will end up king? For their dominance has also spawned a rivalry that Racing For Change’s marketing moguls would be well advised to make the most of through the winter months.

It is a rivalry that is already starting to manifest itself. Witness, for example, Newbury, where Bobs Worth might have taken the prize, but not far behind in second was the revitalised TIDAL BAY, whose rehabilitation is the perfect advertisement for the skills of Nicholls. But it’s a rivalry that looks sure to be most prevalent via a series of duels, starting at Sandown this coming weekend, between the country’s top 2m chasers, SPRINTER SACRE, saddled by Henderson, and SANCTUAIRE, saddled by Nicholls.

In the trainers’ duel, the 50-year-old Nicholls is the incumbent. Champion for the past seven seasons, after finishing runner-up to Martin Pipe for the same number of years.

My admiration for the former jockey knows no bounds. Just like his own drive and professionalism. Anyone still not a member of the Nicholls fan club should catch up with his autobiography, ‘Lucky Break’. A highly recommended read that, above all, reveals what makes him tick.

His competitive streak yields a constant desire to improve. For 11 consecutive seasons now, Nicholls has saddled at least 115 winners, including more than 150 four times. Not since 2002 has he failed to top £2 million in prize money. Silviniaco Conti’s triumph at Haydock last month was the master of Ditcheat’s 90th Grade One success.

Armed with such statistics, it is almost inconceivable that Nicholls is NOT favourite for this season’s trainers’ title. But while his stable stars, KAUTO STAR, DENMAN and MASTER MINDED, have moved on, the unique, occasionally eccentric, ability of the brilliant Henderson is enjoying a renaissance.

Ability that first surfaced back in the 1980s when, only in his mid-30s, he landed two successive trainers’ championships on the back of his handling of triple Champion Hurdle winner, SEE YOU THEN.

Incredibly, Henderson has not been crowned champion trainer since. Last season, the prize would have been his until, amid drama so criminally underplayed by the racing media, that man Nicholls snatched it from him at the death when NEPTUNE COLLONGES got up in the closing strides to win the Grand National.

However, the 62-year-old Henderson still trained many more winners than Nicholls (167 to 138). And while his tally of prize money was not enough for the title, it was still the highest of his career.

Now the Lambourn man boasts a battalion of horses the envy of his profession in his bid to topple Nicholls. SPRINTER SACRE, SIMONSIG, BOBS WORTH, FINIAN’S RAINBOW, RIVERSIDE THEATRE, OSCAR WHISKY, GRANDOUET, to name but a few.

Add the roll-call of names to Henderson’s uncanny capacity for getting his charges spot-on for the races that matter and it’s little wonder we have a trainer who has saddled more Cheltenham Festival winners than anyone alive. A total of 46, including a record-breaking seven last March alone.

See what I mean about this title race? Two giants of the game going to head to head in a battle royal sure to get racing’s heart beating like a drum -- whether that heart is in Cheltenham or Royal Ascot.