Perhaps one of the greatest UK horse racing trainers of all time, Paul Nicholls OBE has made a name for himself over the decades, and on top of that, he’s been to the very top of the game, winning many top-quality races. As part of his success, Paul has won the Grand National, with Neptune Collonges winning the race in 2012, giving him his first victory, 20 years after having his first runner in the race.
Born on April 17th, 1962, Nicholls began life as a jockey, having a good amount of success until an injury prevented him from continuing that. In 1991, he turned to training, with a solid start but over the first decade, that grew with time, and luckily for Nicholls, success.
He’s trained over 3000 winners in the game, won races that many people dream of simply having a runner in, never mind winning, and when it comes to the Grand National, Neptune Collonges is the horse that he will forever be associated with.
During his time in racing, the Grand National hasn’t been the only big race he’s won, with a fantastic resume that few can match.
Paul Nicholls Grand National Wins
- 2012 - Neptune Collonges ridden by Daryl Jacob
First Grand National Winner Neptune Collonges
Paul Nicholls began his training career in 1991 and had his first Grand National runner just a year later in 1992. Just So finished 6th in the contest, a good start, but he would have to wait 20 years until he finally won the race after many attempts.
Neptune Collonges was the horse to do it, the 53rd horse to run under the guidance of Nicholls in the contest, and the big grey finally got him the prize. The story surrounding Neptune Collonges highlights just how good a trainer Paul Nicholls really is. A one-time Gold Cup contender, who placed in that race, he was off the track for over 600 days after winning three Grade One contests, most would have given up or struggled to get him back.
But Nicholls persisted, lowered his targets and looked at staying races, something the horse had proven in his younger years. That led him and owner John Hales to form a plan of going to the Grand National to try and win the nation’s most significant contest, and they did exactly that. His exploits as a top-quality animal gave Neptune Collonges a platform to shine, he already had a following before the race. On top of that, being a grey, he was famous for another reason, so many will have taken advantage of the 33/1 SP on offer from the bookmakers.
By winning the contest, he became the first grey horse to win the race since Nicolaus Silver in 1961. On top of that, he broke another record, the winning distance of a nose was the closest margin ever recorded by a winner, there was nothing in it, and it required a photo finish to separate Neptune Collonges and Sunnyhillboy.
To add more drama to the day, owner John Hales declared that the horse would retire immediately following the race, saying he would never win again while celebrating the victory in the winner’s enclosure.
A great horse, one that reached the heights of Grade One success, built a following, was loved by many and then went out in the best possible way by winning a huge race and retiring on the spot.
Early Career As A Jockey
Prior to becoming a trainer, Paul Nicholls spent time as a young jockey, learning the ropes and building contacts within the game, perhaps more importantly for his later days. Nicholls started as a conditional jockey in 1982, working under Josh Gifford. He later joined David Barons, and this is where Nicholls had most of his success as a jockey, they began working together in 1985, and Nicholls became stable jockey in 1986.
In 1986 and 1987, the pair won back-to-back Hennessy Gold Cups, first with Broadheath and then with Playschool. The latter name went on to win the 1987 Welsh Grand National, the 1988 Irish Hennessy, and then was made a favourite for the 1988 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Unfortunately, Nicholls was unable to go much further with his riding career. During pre-training ahead of the 1989 season, Nicholls was kicked in the leg by a horse, which broke his leg, and he couldn’t recover, so he decided to retire due to injury. In seven years as a jockey, Nicholls rode a total of 133 winners.
The Top Trainer In Britain
After falling in love with horse racing, Nicholls could retire from riding, but could not leave the sport altogether, which is what took him down the route of training. Nicholls took out his training license in 1991, which came two years after his injury. During those two years, he wasn’t away from the sport, Nicholls assisted David Barons, who he had such a good relationship with while a jockey. At this time, Nicholls saw Seagram win the Grand National at the start of 1991.
He started with eight horses, and his first winner was fittingly owned by his father and called Olveston, which was the name of the village in which he grew up in as a child. Winners followed, the start was positive, and by 1993, he’d won his first Grade One race, with See More Indians winning the Feltham Novices’ Chase at Kempton.
Fast forward to 1999, and Nicholls hit the big time on the biggest stage of them all. He went to the Cheltenham Festival hoping that his string would perform well, and they certainly did that. He won three of the most prestigious races of the entire year in that week, the Champion Chase with Call Equiname, the Arkle with Flagship Uberalles and the Gold Cup with See More Business.
Despite this, it wasn’t enough for Nicholls to become Champion Trainer, his string was not quite big enough to battle with Martin Pipe, who he grew a great rivalry with. However, this did finally come in the 2005/06 season, and it came on the back of finishing second in the race a total of seven times.
From this moment, there was no looking back, he dominated racing for the next decade, and in particular, 2008 was a massive year for the master trainer. Firstly, in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, one of the biggest and best races on the calendar. Not only did Nicholls win the race, but he saddled the first three, with Denman beating Kauto Star and Neptune Collonges finishing in third.
Later that year, when Master Minded won the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, he brought up a total of 50 Grade One wins for the Nicholls yard. Many dream of one; Nicholls has racked up 50 top-level wins in 17 years as a trainer.
His career had many wins, but two big races eluded him. The Champion Hurdle and the Grand National. In the space of a month in 2012, Nicholls ticked them both off his list of races he wanted to win. Rock On Ruby kicked things off, winning the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March, and Neptune Collonges followed it up with a win in the Grand National in April.
In the 2015/16 season, Nicholls won the Champion Trainer title for the 10th time in his career, cementing his dominance in the sport. In 2020, he was given an OBE in the Queen’s Honours List for services to horse racing.
Partnership With Ruby Walsh
During the height of his success, Nicholls had a man he could trust in the saddle, one of the greatest jockeys of recent times, Ruby Walsh. The Irishman became stable jockey for Nicholls at the right time when investment was going into the yard on a regular basis.
The likes of Kauto Star, Denman, Neptune Collonges, Big Bucks, Master Minded and many more went through the yard, racking up Grade One wins, with Nicholls getting them trained to perfection for the day and Walsh steering them home.
Known for being a jockey that takes his time, judges pace and likes to get his mount moving through the field from towards the rear, Walsh was the perfect partner for horses from the stable, many of whom needed to be ridden in the way.
For a few years, this really was a match made in heaven.
Finding Gems In The French Market
One of the reasons why Nicholls moved ahead of many other trainers during his dominant period was that he could really dominate the French market. Not too many people were buying horses in France, and those who did, did not have the same contacts and money to spend as Nicholls did.
After seeing them run, he went to France and got many of his best-ever horses from the market, sometimes in tiny races that no one else ever saw. These private sales prevented the horses from hitting the open market for anyone to buy, and in many ways, Nicholls set up a conveyor belt of talent, running and winning in France, before coming to the UK and dominating here.
His success in France has lessened in recent years, but that has not been down to Nicholls slowing down, simply others catching him up. With the ability to watch any race now there for anyone, more sales that others can get involved in, and more people looking to buy horses from France, the competition is far greater than it has ever been.
Kauto Star the Stable Wonder Horse
If there is one horse to typify Paul Nicholls during his dominant period, it is Kauto Star. Bought from France, nurtured by Nicholls, ridden beautifully by Walsh, and he dominated the biggest races on the calendar.
With five King George Chases, four Betfair Chases, and two Gold Cup’s this horse was the horse of a lifetime, and even in the Nicholls yard that was full of top-quality talent at the time, he still managed to stand out as being the best.
With the £1 million bonus for winning the triple crown in one season (Betfair Chase, King George and Gold Cup), he won a total of £3.7 million as a racehorse, which is incredible to think, and a sign of just how dominant he was at the top level.
At any other stage of Nicholls’ career, or with any other trainer, this horse would likely have got even more praise for his efforts. Despite a stable packed with stars, he still managed to stand above the rest of them.
Famous Horses Trained by Paul Nicholls
Here are some of the more prominent names trained by Paul Nicholls during his career.
See More Business
Rock On Ruby