Certain sections of the media love to run a knocking story and when champion trainer Paul Nicholls’s horses failed to win as many races as usual over the past three weeks, the groaners were soon at it. Was the magic missing? Had the maestro mislaid his baton? The Nicholls response was characteristically bold. He sent out his star young chaser Bravemansgame, his best hope for the Cheltenham Festival, to contest a novice handicap at Newbury last Saturday in which he had to give lumps of weight to a couple of handy performers in the shape of Grumpy Charley and Pats Fancy.
Bravemansgame was the highest-rated horse to run in a novice handicap chase since 1988 but with some fine leaps along the way he turned out to have no trouble giving 16lb to each of those rivals and remaining unbeaten in four races over fences. As one racing sage said to me in the winners’ enclosure: ‘Any other trainer with a fortnight of inexplicable under-performers would have been closing down the yard for a fortnight to scratch his head. Paul just carries on. That’s why he’s champion trainer.’
The man himself was confident after Bravemansgame’s victory that he had still left plenty to work on before Cheltenham: ‘When I had all those good horses like Kauto Star and Denman, I used to run them here needing it and that’s what I’ve tried to do in a handicap.’ Matter-of-factly he pointed out too: ‘I’ve been running at a 29 per cent strike rate all season and now I’m 23 per cent, but I’m still higher than most trainers and at some point over 12 months you’re going to dip.’ Point made.
By contrast one could only have sympathy for Nicky Henderson whose Gallyhill was the outsider of five. Bought for £450,000 after victory in an Irish point-to-point, he looked a picture in the paddock but Nico de Boinville gave up the struggle before five out. After two luckless runs, falling and being brought down, Gallyhill now has the full set of initials, not figures, after his name: F, B and P. Money doesn’t always buy success.
As so often on such a fair track as Newbury, there were a series of races with several still in it turning into the straight and some thrilling finishes. The canny Paddy Brennan kept Fergal O’Brien’s high strike rate ticking over with a narrow victory in the novices’ hurdle that was probably easier than it looked. Tom Lacey’s 20-1 shot Glory And Fortune under Stan Sheppard held off I Like To Move It, ridden by Sam Twiston-Davies, by a short head in a thrilling Betfair Hurdle race. But there was no doubt of the most joyous celebrations of the day in the winners’ enclosure. They came when Twiston-Davies threw everything at The Brimming Water after the last to win the Class 2 handicap hurdle for another Sam — Samuel Drinkwater — prevailing by three quarters of a length. Make a note of the trainer’s name.
It had been his brother’s birthday and Mum and Dad had taken a Newbury table braced, I suspect, by more than water. Up on the second-floor balcony we were surrounded by a cheery group who yelled the winner home (though ‘Come on The Brimming Water’ isn’t exactly the catchiest slogan to yell at a race crescendo). Most of them then poured into the winners’ enclosure where, from the hugging, shoulder-slapping and high fives, it appeared the cheery jockey knew them all personally. It really was a true family and friends affair: Samuel Drinkwater was an accomplished rider on the point-to-point circuit where his 100-plus winners included successes for Sam’s father Nigel Twiston-Davies and for the day’s two other victors Fergal O’Brien and Tom Lacey. A bad accident, which saw Sam Drinkwater nearly lose his foot, put an end to his riding career. Undaunted he sold his house, and his parents Karen and Paul sold theirs to set him up in his Worcestershire yard at Strensham where they all live. ‘Without them I’d have nothing,’ says Sam quietly and after a dream start he’s certainly been through the highs and lows of racing.
Tour des Champs was a 50-1 winner at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day 2017 within weeks of the rookie trainer taking out a licence. ‘I rather took it for granted and thought the winners would keep coming after that,’ but tragically Tour des Champs had to be put down after an operation for colic. ‘That was a real setback,’ and in season two the virus struck. Since then, however, the stable has prospered. Already this season they have 13 winners on the board, comfortably beating last season’s total of eight, with the likes of Strensham Court, Fontana Ellissi and Gallic Geordie among the contributors. ‘The phone calls didn’t come after his last victory,’ reflected Sam Drinkwater after The Brimming Water’s Newbury success but an ITV winner on Saturday is always good news and with Sam Twiston-Davies happy to pay tribute to ‘a great young trainer’ that should be only a matter of time.