Paul Nicholls Exclusive: Our most transitional season yet but we are investing and building for the future. Bring it on!
Betfair ambassador and eight-times, and current, National Hunt champion trainer Paul Nicholls believes Jonjo O'Neill probably deserves to be the bookmakers' favourite to win the trainers' title this season but he is relishing the challenge ahead. Here he sets the scene for the new season in his exclusive Betfair column...
"In my opinion, Jonjo (O'Neill) probably deserves to be favourite to be champion trainer - I think that they are setting their stall out for it this season with their best-ever squad of horses."
Everyone knows that we love, and rise to, a challenge here at Ditcheat - you saw that last season - but I think that we have a real fight on our hands if we are to bring home a ninth trainers' title in this campaign.
But that's how we like it!
I don't want anybody reading that and confusing realism with pessimism - everyone knows that I still retain all the hunger, passion and drive that I did when first starting out - but I'll be honest and say that I'll be surprised if we do. Even if no-one ever believes me when I say that!
But, rest assured, we have left no stone unturned in our continuing quest for excellence. But, as I explain below, this is very much a rebuilding year for us for the future.
In my opinion, Jonjo (O'Neill) probably deserves to be favourite to be champion trainer - I think that they are setting their stall out for it this season with their best-ever squad of horses - and obviously Nicky (Henderson) has a formidable team, too. And I wouldn't rule out David (Pipe), Donald (McCain) or Alan (King) having big seasons, and who knows what Willie (Mullins) could achieve if he brought his big guns over more often.
The opposition has never been more fierce - especially with so many talented, young, up-and-coming trainers like my former assistants Dan (Skelton) and Harry (Fry) around - but, perhaps more importantly, this is my most transitional season since I started training.
Yes, we had the changing of the guard a couple of years back with Kauto, Denman and Master Minded being retired, and the likes of Big Buck's, Neptune Collonges and Tidal Bay subsequently.
All, in their own ways, horses of a lifetime and of an ability that we will probably never see the likes of at Ditcheat again at any one time.
But this year there has been a more fundamental change, and I have been regrouping, planning and investing in the future, in more ways than one, and I am very excited by the rebuilding process.
More than 50 horses that were in last season's team aren't here any more - I had my biggest-ever clear-out in the summer - and they were replaced with good quality, young horses who will need time and who I won't be in a rush with.
And, most significantly, I have invested in a new gallop and schooling facility. Again, investment for the future. These will add a new dimension to our training regime. You can never stand still in this game.
But it will take time to see these new innovations bear fruit. The gallop was about a month late being finished, and so we are similarly behind with the horses, but we aren't far off.
We have never known a drier summer and autumn here at Ditcheat. And the ground is so firm that we haven't been able to school anything on the grass yet.
You can do all the work you want on the gallop, up the hill and in the school, but there is no substitute for a school on grass, especially with youngsters who haven't seen a hurdle or fence before in public, although the new facility will soon rectify that.
And couple this with the fact that because of the good weather the horses may have enjoyed themselves a little bit too much in the summer - Dad and PKB (Paul Barber) say they are probably fatter inside than ever before as a result, and a lot harder to get fit - means that we will only start rolling properly from November onwards.
But it is a long season and it's not as if the horses are running badly. Far from it, in fact, and we have had some high-profile winners like Southfield Theatre, Wonderful Charm and Virak. But they aren't quite at concert pitch just yet, and some have needed their first runs, as was the case this time last season.
Like I said though, I am in no mad rush this season anyway.
I have got a really good, strong, young string of horses and the quality is definitely there. Again, it's all about investment for the future, and the same is true of our young team of jockeys.
We obviously have Sam (Twiston-Davies) now as our stable jockey, with Nick (Scholfield) as our number two. Ryan (Mahon) and Daryl (Jacob) also come in to help with the schooling, and talented 7lb claimer Sean Bowen has joined us alongside Jack Sherwood. Champion point-to-point jockey Will Biddick, who rode a winner for us earlier in the week, is very capable indeed and he is invaluable at schooling our horses at home.
We haven't got the array of star older horses that we once had and have a bigger team of youngsters than before - Rebel Rebellion is the oldest horse in the yard at 9yo - but I am very happy with the emerging talent in the yard. The likes of Saphir Du Rheu, Ptit Zig, Irish Saint and Brother Du Berlais are just four of our incredibly exciting novice chase prospects, and we have more juveniles than I think we have ever had.
So while I am as hungry and positive as I have ever been, I know that there are 500-odd trainers out there and there can only be one champion. That will take care of itself but I do have my eye on getting three more Grade 1 winners to take our tally to 100, I must admit!
So, yes, we are in a transitional period, and the competition has never been greater.
But, as we always say here at Ditcheat, bring it on!