Paul Nicholls with Brown Advisory hopeful Stay Away Fay
Paul Nicholls with Brown Advisory hopeful Stay Away Fay

Paul Nicholls Stable Tour: Cheltenham Festival 2024 preview including Stage Star, Stay Away Fay and Ginny's Destiny

Ben Linfoot reflects on a visit to Ditcheat where Paul Nicholls shone some light on his small but select team for the 2024 Cheltenham Festival.

All business. No messing. Paul Nicholls is about as decisive a horse racing trainer as you could possibly wish to meet. A dozen Cheltenham horses are paraded on a sunny Monday lunchtime at his Manor Farm Stables and about a dozen horses will go to Cheltenham. “They are horses with chances,” he says. “I’ve learnt over the years you want a small but select team.”

It’s different here to the heyday years of Kauto Star and Denman. In 2007, 2008 and 2009 Nicholls took 34, 34 and 35 horses to the Festival, winning 12 races, but he has about a third of the ammunition this time around. In 2021 he took 20 horses to Cheltenham and had no winners, in 2022 he was zero from nine.

So last year was important. Two winners from 16 runners. But two Grade 1 winners with two young horses who are back for more 12 months on.

It’s not as if Nicholls needed reminding how hard it is to win at the Festival. He started training from his Ditcheat base in 1991 and all he wanted was to train a Cheltenham Festival winner, but he had to wait until 1999, now 25 years ago, when Flagship Uberalles won the Arkle, Call Equiname won the Champion Chase and See More Business lifted the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Paul Nicholls: My Cheltenham Festival team 2024

“That was an amazing week,” Nicholls says, smiling at the memories. “When you start off as a trainer you want Cheltenham winners and I went eight years as a trainer without having one, then I had three in a week. That kick started everything. We’ve had 48 Cheltenham winners now, it would be nice to get the 50.

“But it’s always hard to win at the Festival. Up against Willie’s battalions it’s hard but it’s all about having the right horses. In 2007, 2008, 2009 we had Kauto Star, Denman, Big Buck’s, we had the right horses and like in any sport you need the right players. But we’re getting there.

“They were amazing horses. And when you walk into that winners’ enclosure having won the Gold Cup there’s no feeling like it. It drives you on to win it again.

“Moving on we’ve got to find the next generation and hopefully we are.”

Back to that decisiveness, Nicholls knows exactly what he wants to see in a Cheltenham Festival horse. Pic D’Orhy, Kalif Du Berlais and Tahmuras all get favourable mentions, but all will miss Cheltenham in favour of other spring targets at Aintree and beyond. “I might look for a big handicap for Tahmuras, that could suit him.” But back to the business. No messing.

Stage Star is a Cheltenham horse.

Nicholls is still kicking himself for running him at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day (“I wish I hadn’t run him, I was looking for any excuse not to run him”) but he’s happy with him now and he heads to the Ryanair in terrific shape.

“He needs to be fresh, needs to be right,” Nicholls continues. “He isn’t the easiest to train as he has a few little issues but when he’s right he’s very good. He’s had physio since New Year’s Day and he’s back where we want him now. He schooled well last week, he doesn’t need an away day as he goes so well fresh and if he hadn’t run on New Year’s Day he’d probably be favourite.

“I think Banbridge is a very good favourite [on a line through Pic D’Orhy] and might be hard to beat if he runs like he did at Kempton, but Stage Star is very good around Cheltenham. The New Course is absolutely made for him.”

Stage Star pictured alongside Paul Nicholls
Stage Star pictured alongside Paul Nicholls

Ginny’s Destiny is a Cheltenham horse.

Nicholls himself can’t quite believe this horse’s improvement since he joined from Tom Lacey’s (“He was so fat when he joined us he really needed his first run, knowing he would improve massively, but I didn’t think he would improve quite has much as he has done from run to run”), his Cheltenham record now three from three since that inauspicious stable debut.

His official rating of 155 means he’s rated 3lb higher than Stage Star was heading into last year’s Turners Novices’ Chase, giving Nicholls a bullish confidence ahead of the same race in three weeks’ time.

He said: “He’s one of the most improved horses in training this year, arguably. He adores Cheltenham, loves the New Course. He’s favourite for the Turners, he jumps brilliantly, gallops all the way up the Cheltenham hill, probably stays three miles.

“He goes a good gallop and he keeps galloping, he’s a smart animal. I’d say he’s every bit as good as Stage Star. He’s a proper horse. Unlike Stage Star, who has a few issues, he’s solid to train at home, a real nice horse to train so you can get stuck into him and get him fit. He looks fantastic. He’s one of our best chances of the week.”

Ginny's Destiny looks in fine shape
Ginny's Destiny looks in fine shape

Stay Away Fay is a Cheltenham horse.

He won last year’s Albert Bartlett at the Festival and Nicholls was so keen to get course experience over fences into him he threw him in at the deep end in the Cotswold Chase on Trials Day, ahead of a tilt at the Brown Advisory.

“He ran a good race in the Cotswold Chase, it turned out a bit of a sprint but he got some valued experience against the older horses. We were pleased with that. I probably learnt more that day than any other race that he’s run in. It was all about gaining experience at the course. He’ll have to jump a bit sharper, the first ditch he nearly landed on, but he’ll have learnt so much. He’s all about stamina. In time races like the Betfair Chase over three miles and a quarter are going to suit him well.

“I’d actually prefer if the Brown Advisory was on the New Course, a much stiffer track, given he’s all about stamina, but he’ll be a lot sharper at the Festival than he was on Trials Day.”

Is Bravemansgame a Cheltenham horse?

He might be. He’s zero from two at the track after defeats in the Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup, but…

“He ran a screamer in last year’s Gold Cup,” Nicholls says, in full defence mode. “In my view there’s not a lot between him and Shishkin. We haven’t seen him at his best yet this season because of circumstances but he’s just where I want him now.

“I’m very happy with him and 20/1 is massive. He was second last year and I look at some of the horses ahead of him in the betting and he’s great value. We’ve all got to beat Galopin Des Champs, but I’m very happy with him and if he runs like he did last year he’ll be thereabouts again.”

Bravemansgame pictured at Paul Nicholls' Ditcheat yard
Bravemansgame pictured at Paul Nicholls' Ditcheat yard

As for other Cheltenham horses, a bit of guesswork is required.

Captain Teague was third in the Champion Bumper and goes for either the Baring Bingham, if it’s softer ground, or the Albert Bartlett, on better conditions. The only bit of indecisiveness on show.

Teeshan (7/1) goes for the Champion Bumper but so does Quebecois (25/1) and Nicholls can’t split the pair.

In the handicaps Monmiral for the Pertemps (“he qualified quite nicely on ground he didn’t like”) and Sonigino for the Martin Pipe (“I suspect he’ll go there with Freddie Gingell riding, he needs a fast-run race coming from off the pace”) get the most favourable mentions.

All business. No messing. And then Nicholls is at his most animated when the cameras are off, bemoaning the temporary closure of the only pub within walking distance of his yard, the Manor House Inn. Hopefully it will be reopened in time for Cheltenham. Its most famous patrons might have a winner or two to celebrate judging by the quality of Festival horse he is preparing this year.

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