'Paul changed my career, Willie shaped my life' - Ruby Walsh
Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins have many differences but the one thing that have had in common is Ruby Walsh. He rode as first jockey for both - at the same time - until four years ago when he decided to concentrate on Ireland and there is no better man to offer insight into their characters.
As it happens, Walsh,36, is relieved he does not still have a foot in both camps as the two scrap it out to be British champion trainer at Sandown Park tomorrow, the last day of the season. The man with most prize money will be crowned.
"It would have been very awkward," explains the jockey, who is currently sidelined by a broken wrist sustained at Aintree on the eve of the Grand National. "Deciding which horse to ride would certainly have tested my diplomatic skills."
Having ridden 52 Cheltenham Festival winners - 21 for Nicholls, 29 and counting for Mullins - Walsh knows both men and their methods inside out.
"As trainers, it's like any sport, the results speak for themselves," he says. "One is a multiple champion in Ireland, the other a multiple champion in England. They dominate the big races. They are both very good at it and their results stare you in the face.
"But they are very different. Willie is a few years older, they run very different operations and have completely different facilities. They are both very good businessmen and very good delegators, but as trainers they have a completely different modus operandi, which, as much as anything, proves training is an art and not a science.
"Paul is more organised and definitely more punctual. If you went for dinner with Paul at 7.00 he'd mean 7.00. If you went for dinner with Willie at 7.00 he means 9.30 - but that might be a bit of an Ireland thing anyway. So in a way you have the two different cultures coming out in them."
While Nicholls likes to plan ahead, Mullins likes to keep his options open as long as possible. Although he returned from Perth after a day trip on Wednesday to organise his horses coming over for Sandown, he regularly changes his mind about which race to run his horses at the last possible minute - declaration time the day before a race.
When it comes race tactics it is Nicholls who is the more involved. "Willie doesn't really do instructions," explains Walsh. "He might say, 'What are you thinking of doing?' and you'll say I'll do it this way or that way, or make it up if you don't know. Otherwise the race is just about the last thing he will talk about in the paddock.
"When I was starting out I rode against Willie and he was just as likely to change his tactics down at the start, perhaps that is just the way he views tactics. Paul got more involved and detailed, but both are straightforward. If you changed your plans neither had an issue and both like a bit of honesty if you get it wrong."
Walsh feels that while Mullins has had more influence on him as a person, it was the opportunities on the Nicholls superstars like Kauto Star, Master Minded, Big Buck's, Denman and Azertyuiop, that shaped his career. Willie has had an incredible influence on my life," he reflects. "I was working for him while I was at school and a full-time employee the moment I left and I've been with him ever since, but I'd say riding Paul's great horses shaped my career."
Walsh left Nicholls after a decade together and, although that looked a smart move with all the superstars in the Mullins yard while Nicholls 'rebuilds', it was less to do with the horses than daily life.
"I had 10 years on the road or, rather, in the air and eventually you get tired of not going home. I had a wife and kids at home and family life starts to pass you by. I also wanted to stretch out my career a bit, but it wasn't an easy thing to do. It's not something I would have told Paul over the phone. I went to see him."
Contrary to some reports the trainers get on well. "I've huge respect for Willie," says Nicholls. "In fact my head lad Clifford (Baker) is going over to him for a few days in April. We're both competitors and not in each other's pockets, but he trains in Ireland and I train here. I reckon it will all come down to the Bet365 Gold Cup. It would be nice to win it but if we don't I'll be the first person to shake Willie's hand."
Mullins reckons he will need a Sandown "four-timer, unless we won the Bet365" but who would the pragmatic Walsh put his money on?
"Paul Nicholls. Definitely," he declares. "Before last week I would have favoured Willie, but Paul had an incredible weekend. Even if he goes into the day only £50,000 in front a bird in hand is very much worth two in the bush at this stage.
"It might also come down to the weather. If it rained on Friday night that would help Willie. Paul's Horse Southfield Theatre will be hard to beat in the Bet365 Gold Cup and, if it is dry, it will be hard for Willie's to beat Sprinter Sacre in the Celebration Chase." (© Daily Telegraph, London)