Paul Nicholls using friend Sir Alex Ferguson's drive as inspiration ahead of latest Cheltenham tilt

They are long-time pals and enjoy a pleasant, professional relationship, so the ­comparisons come easily.

Paul Nicholls is a racing ­equivalent of his friend and patron Sir Alex Ferguson .

From humble beginnings to a champion trainer many times over.

The early starts, the late finishes, the drive, the determination, the temper, the star-making, the ­rebuilding of teams.

Never easing off the daily ­dedication, but characters made for the big occasion.

The pair are close friends
(Photo: Getty Images)

For Nicholls, that is the ­Cheltenham Festival.

For Fergie lifting the European Cup, read Nicholls lifting the Gold Cup. “There is nothing better than going into that winner’s enclosure having won a Gold Cup,” said the man who has done it four times.

“It is indescribable, truly ­indescribable. You could never buy that feeling. It is just amazing.”

The first time he felt it was in 1999.

Not having had a festival winner in eight years of training, Nicholls broke his duck when Flagship ­Uberalles won the Arkle Chase on the Tuesday of the ’99 meeting, Call Equiname won the Champion Chase the following day and then See More Business took the Gold Cup on the Thursday.

“That was as an amazing three days,” he said. “From never having a ­Cheltenham winner, I had three. Three big ones. That set the ball rolling. All of a sudden, everyone was asking, ‘Who’s this guy?’

“We were away then, that was the turning point, the catalyst for ­everything.”

A tiny bit like ­Ferguson winning the European Cup ­Winners’ Cup in 1983, beating Bayern ­Munich and Real ­Madrid in the process.

Nicholls is hoping for another successful festival
(Photo: PA)

He did not move to Old Trafford straight away from ­Aberdeen, but it brought him ­Europe-wide attention.

Having quit as a jockey in 1991, Nicholls set himself up as a trainer with just eight horses in the ­Somerset village of Ditcheat. He is still there, but has expanded slightly. “We’ve got 120 horses at any one time. And now, we’ve had 40 ­Cheltenham winners, four Gold Cups, don’t know how many champion chases.

“It has just been ­awesome,” said Nicholls, who has been responsible for a string of Cheltenham heroes that became household names.

Going into this year’s festival, he ­admitted there is no obvious ­superstar among his battalion – and that has its pluses and ­minuses.

Ruby Walsh rides Kauto Star up the final straight to the finish post to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup Steeple Chase
Kauto Star is one of Nicholls’ greatest ever
(Photo: Getty)

“When we had Kauto Star, ­Denman and Big Bucks, the ­expectation on us was huge, the pressure was huge,” he explained.

“There’s not quite so much ­expectation now. We still put ­ourselves under pressure, of course, because, whatever you train, you want to get the best out of them.

“And things go in cycles. I was amazed when I had that front yard full of those stars, but Willie Mullins has them, Colin Tizzard has them.

“You just have to get on with it and try and find the next stars.

“That’s what we are doing. Even when he had Eric Cantona, Sir Alex kept looking for the next Cantona.”

Eric Cantona, Manchester United's new signing, with manager Alex Ferguson
Cantona was Fergie’s defining signing at Old Trafford
(Photo: Malcolm Croft/PA Wire)

While Nicholls might not have his next Cantona yet, he is certainly upbeat heading into the best four days of British jump racing.

He said: “Politologue has a great chance in the JLT Novices Chase and Movewiththetimes must have a chance. It’s not set in stone, but he will probably run in the ­Supreme Novices Hurdle. One that has slipped under the radar a bit is Caid Du Berlais. He should be in the two-mile five-­furlong handicap chase, the Plate, and he could be an ­interesting horse at around 25-1.”

With the powerhouse stables of Tizzard and Nicky Henderson ­having especially strong hands and the all-conquering Mullins leading the Irish charge, Nicholls is aware winners will be hard to come by.

“Despite our success, I ­always work on the premise that to get one winner is great and then anything on top of that is a bonus,” he added.

Nicholls has been champion jumps trainer in 10 out of the last 11 years – the season’s championship is decided by prize money – and is in good shape to claim another title. “We are about £350,000 ahead and if Colin or Nicky each have a good ­Cheltenham, it could all be close coming out of the Festival,” he said.

“But I’ve got a lot to run after the festival. I’ve got a lot to run on ­better ground from mid-March to the end of April. We had an ­amazing April last year.

“And if you don’t win one week, just dust yourself down, move on, try and win a big one the next week.”

His old friend Sir Alex could not have put it better.

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