For followers of the Sport of Kings, the month of March means just one thing and that is the Cheltenham Festival when for four days the normally calm and serene Cotswold spa town is awash with all things jumps racing

One trainer who has enjoyed considerable success at The Festival is Somerset’s Paul Nicholls who is based in the village of Ditcheat which is located on the southern slopes of the Mendip Hills between Shepton Mallet and Castle Cary. Paul was born in Lydney on the other side of the Bristol Channel, the son of a policeman, on 17th April 1962, and grew up living in South Gloucestershire where he attended Marlwood School. From an early age Paul had an interest in horses and much preferred to be out riding his ponies than going to school or playing other sports. It was no surprise that when he was 16 he left school and went to work full time for Point to Point trainer Dick Baimbridge who taught him so much, and was a huge influence on him at this stage of his career.

After enjoying success on the Point-to-Point circuit Paul got his amateur’s licence and started to ride in National Hunt races for a variety of trainers. One of these was Josh Gifford, based at Findon in Sussex who offered him a full time position and in 1982 he became a conditional jockey. Paul spent three years at Gifford’s yard during which time he had his first experience of riding at Aintree and his first ride in the Grand National on Roman Bistro, a 150-1 shot. In the autumn of 1985 he moved to join trainer David Barons who was expanding his yard in South Devon near Kingsbridge and was looking to recruit another jockey. The following year Paul stepped up to become the number one rider at Barons yard which is where he enjoyed his most success as a jockey. The partnership proved to be very successful and during his time at the stable he rode a number of big race winners including the Hennessy Gold Cup two years running on board Broadheath in 1986 and Playschool in 1987. That same year Playschool also won the Welsh Grand National and in 1988 the Hennessy Irish Gold Cup. However after notching up 119 winners over seven years Paul suffered a broken leg when a horse kicked him, which brought his riding career to an early end in 1989. For the next two years he worked as assistant trainer to Barons and in 1991 gained his licence.

Great British Life: Paul Barber (left) who is Paul Nicholls' landlord, and owner of Denman pictured after winning the Gold Cup in 2008. Paul Barber (left) who is Paul Nicholls' landlord, and owner of Denman pictured after winning the Gold Cup in 2008. (Image: Paul Nicholls)

That same year he moved to his Manor Farm yard in Ditcheat, where dairy farmer Paul Barber, whose family had been making cheddar cheese since 1833, was his landlord. He started out with eight horses and got his first winner as a trainer when Olveston, named after the village where he grew up and owned partly by his parents, won at Hereford. Since then he has never looked back and gone onto saddle over 3600 winners and been crowned as champion trainer on 14 occasions.He has also become one of the most successful trainers of his era at the Cheltenham Festival which this year starts on Tuesday 12th March. Paul said 'We have had quite a few winners at The Festival- in fact I think we need two more to reach 50 which has included four Gold Cups, so yes it’s been very good. You could really call the Cheltenham Festival the Olympics of our sport- the Blue Riband Steeplechase is the Gold Cup and everybody who is involved in horse racing wants to win the Gold Cup. It’s so competitive with the best of the English and Irish horses and it’s good prize money. There are fantastic crowds and its just four fantastic days of racing.'

Paul went on, 'I had a few races as a jockey at Cheltenham and rode Playschool for David Barons in the Gold Cup in 88. He was favourite but he had a problem and pulled up which was pretty disappointing But Cheltenham became special to me in 1999 when I’d never had a winner there, but then had three in a week - on Tuesday, Flagship Uberalles won, on the Wednesday, Call Equiname won the Champion Chase and then Thursday, See More Business won the Gold Cup and suddenly that put a new meaning on The Festival for me. It was always Paul Barber’s ambition to win a Gold Cup which he achieved with See More Business and in the end he ended up winning two because he had Denman who won in 2008. So 1999 was the year when I started to realise what the Cheltenham Festival was all about. Paul Barber was a fantastic landlord, a fantastic friend and a fantastic man. He took victory and defeat in the same way and had some fantastic horses like Denman, See More Business and he was also involved with Call Equiname .He had some great horses over the years and loved Cheltenham as much as anyone.”

Great British Life: Paul Nicholls right with stable jockey Harry Cobden.Paul Nicholls right with stable jockey Harry Cobden. (Image: Tracy Roberts)

So, how big does The Festival feature in Paul’s season and when does he start his planning? “The media go mad about it straight away and any good horse that wins a race are offered prices for Cheltenham- it seems to be the mindset now. Although racing is now all year round the main core season is from October until the end of April. There are a huge number of races and a lot of them lead up to The Festival and there are others around it, but there is Cheltenham fever really from the autumn when the good racing starts.' Why does Paul think he has such a good record at Cheltenham? 'Lots of crumbs make a cake and we have many winners all round the year but to win at The Festival is about having the right horses for the races- if you haven’t got the best horses then you are in trouble. It’s like having the best of the best, and one year in the yard I had Denman, Kauto Star, Big Bucks, Neptune Collanges and Celestial Halo all incredible horses, and horses at that level ultimately win you races.We have got four gallops, one on the side of a hill so we have got a variety which is all part of getting the horses who are athletes to their very best- fitness is the key to it all. Get them fit, get to know them and run them in the right races.'

And finally did Paul have any tips for Somerset Life readers for this year’s Festival? 'Two novice chasers, Stay Away Fay who won at Cheltenham in 2023 and Hermes Allen - two top class horses, along with Bravemansgame who will be going for the Gold Cup in which he was second last year.'