Few of the many personal triumphs in Paul Nicholls’ stellar career are likely to have given him greater satisfaction than his coronation as champion jumps trainer for the 11th time.
The consensus at the start of this season was that Nicholls could hope to finish second at best behind Nicky Henderson – but the 57-year-old has exceeded expectations by claiming his first title since the titanic 2015/16 battle with Willie Mullins.
It remains an achievement which has taken even Nicholls himself by surprise – as he happily admits in reflection with pride on a title-winning campaign which has seen him saddle six Grade One winners.
Two of them came at the Cheltenham Festival – and Nicholls, who will be crowned officially at Sandown on Saturday, has also recently saddled his 3,000th British jump winner.
“I honestly didn’t think I could win the title this season, because I thought Nicky had an awesome team,” he said.
“I meant it when I said that we weren’t really thinking about it.
“We always try to achieve the best with what we have got – but I thought Nicky would be incredibly hard to beat.”
It was Nicholls instead, though, who established an unstoppable momentum.
“As it has turned out, we have had a fantastic season,” he added.
“It is great to get back at the top again – and of course, it means a lot to us.
“You lose (the title), and you are a bit quieter than usual – but it is just good to get back there this season.”
Winners continued to flow for Nicholls after the glory days of Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded and Big Buck’s. But he points to the emergence of a new generation of genuine Grade One performers as a core reason for his rise back to the top.
“Getting those big Grade One winners back again – like Cyrname, Clan Des Obeaux and Topofthegame – has been ideal.
“Consistently across the board, all those horses have raised their game this year.
“We are back to where we used to be really, and we are only back to where we are because we have had some Grade One winners and top-end horses.
“We (had) been getting the maximum out of the horses without having those Grade One horses – and they have made the difference really, because they carry the rest.”
Nicholls has no shortage of highlights to pick from, of course.
But having won more than £3 million in prize money this season, he nominates five equine performances which stand head and shoulders above the rest.
He said: “One big highlight for me is Frodon, with what he has done.
“Having started off winning the Old Roan, he has crept his way through the whole season and done incredibly well to win the Ryanair.
“Cyrname winning the Grade One at Ascot was probably the performance of the season. On that form alone, he deserves to be the highest rated horse on that one run over that distance.
“Winning the King George for a 10th time with Clan Des Obeaux was fantastic – while another highlight would be Politologue finishing second in the Champion Chase, because that was a career-best for him.
“Topofthegame is an exciting horse and he looked good winning the RSA. I’m convinced he can go forward and be a real live Gold Cup challenger if he gets some luck.”
Making big decisions is all part of the role of being a trainer, and the appointment of Harry Cobden as stable jockey at the start of the season is one Nicholls feels has been well and truly vindicated.
He said: “Harry is only 20 – it is his first year as stable jockey, and he has ridden more than 100 winners. He missed a few months of the season (through injury), so he has really stepped up to the mark.
“It was a big job for him to take, because Sam (Twiston-Davies) had done a brilliant job. Once Sam decided to go freelance, I had to keep Harry on board because Colin (Tizzard) was after him.
“Sometimes you have to make tough decisions, but this one has worked out really well. Sam rode a Grade One winner for us – and I like using him when I can – while Bryony (Frost) and Lorcan (Williams) have both done well.”
Having reclaimed the title, Nicholls believes he is in a good position to make a successful defence of it next season – and he has fired a warning shot to those hoping to dethrone him.
He said: “I think next year’s team will be stronger, because we have the older horses and some exciting young horses coming through.
“It would be nice be keep going forward and defend the title next season – I would have said Nicky will be the main rival again.
“I think Dan (Skelton) would like to win the title one day, and if he gets off to a flier and finds some horses for the big days he could be up there as well.”
It may be Nicholls’ name splashed across the headlines this weekend, but he acknowledges his return to the top has been made possible by the team supporting him at Manor Farm Stables.
He added: “It is very much Team Ditcheat – you are only as good as your team, and you need to look after them.
“I want to treat all the staff to having a bit of a party at some stage. You have got to look after all the team – and we always do that, and always will.”