Paul Nicholls stole the show on the final day of the season at Sandown as he was crowned champion trainer for the 13th time before saddling a spectacular five-timer.
By his own admission it has been an up and down campaign for the master of Ditcheat, with his form early in the new year a genuine cause for concern.
The Cheltenham Festival also came and went without a Nicholls winner, but the arrival of spring has led to a turnaround in form and it all came to a fantastic crescendo in the Esher sunshine – also proving a fitting farewell for assistant trainer Harry Derham, who will now strike out on his own.
Knappers Hill set the ball rolling for the team with victory in the opening bet365 Novices’ Championship Final Handicap Hurdle, with the 3-1 favourite conceding upwards of 6lb but still proving far too good for his rivals, beating Boombawn by four and a half lengths in the hands of Harry Cobden.
Though disappointing in the EBF Final here in March, he had easily landed a novice hurdle last week and Nicholls said: “He is a really nice horse and we knew we had to qualify at Newton Abbot and we kept him fresh for that. That race brought him on a bit and he has done that nicely off top weight.
“He was sixth in the Betfair Hurdle off a mark of 135 and it was inexperience that got him a bit behind. On that form I knew he was going to be hard to beat today.
“He just loves good ground. The time I ran him in the EBF was probably an error, really. The owners were keen to go because they didn’t really want to go to Cheltenham that week with him.”
He added: “A race like the Gerry Feilden would be a good starting point. He has to improve, but he just might – I think there’s lots to come.”
Saint Calvados (evens) and Greaneteen (11-8) completed the Nicholls-Cobden hat-trick, claiming big-race wins in the Oaksey Chase and Celebration Chase respectively.
An hour later came winner number four, with Lorcan Williams in the saddle this time as 4-1 shot McFabulous claimed Grade Two honours in the bet365 Select Hurdle.
In a tactical affair, the eight-year-old made virtually all the running and had just enough left up his sleeve to see off the challenge of Indefatigable by a length.
“McFabulous has loads of ability and he loves that ground. I don’t know why he saves his best for going right-handed, but he will go chasing now,” Nicholls added.
“He is not the easiest of rides, but he has lots of ability. It is a good pot to win this year and he runs well at Aintree. He will go chasing in October. I will start him at Chepstow and then see what happens.
“He would have gone there this year if he had not had an accident in the yard and then it was too late to go chasing – he slipped up and fractured a tiny vertebra in his wither and it just kept him back.
“He will be an exciting chaser. He will get three (miles) round Kempton on a flat track. He would be a good one for the Kauto Star at Kempton and we might work back from that, but that is a long way off.”
Samarrive (100-30) made it a fitting end to a near perfect day with victory in the concluding bet365 Handicap Hurdle, providing Cobden with his fourth success of the afternoon, although the rider finished the campaign on a slightly frustrating 99 winners.
Nicholls said: “Five winners – what an amazing day! The only mistake I made was steering Cobby (Cobden) towards Scaramanga, not McFabulous, otherwise he would have ridden 100 winners.
“That’s how it goes. I got it wrong and we can’t get it right all the time, but I just felt for Cobby to be that close to that ton.
“It has been an amazing day. We have an amazing team and Kate (Nutt, travelling head girl) and Harry’s last day with the horse they saddle is a winner. It is a new thing next year with a new team and we move forward. It never stops.
“Clifford (Baker, head lad) has been with me such a long time and we both love the game and that’s why we do it. We have some lovely horses and this week we have had an amazing week with a few winners.
“The horses have all come right and why they weren’t back in January, I’ll never ever know.
“Of course, any day you’d go racing, you’d be happy with one winner. To get five is just amazing. I did six one day at Wincanton, but five, on a day like today, on the last day of the season, is incredible.”
Derham was delighted to end his Ditcheat tenure in such spectacular style, adding: “It could not have been much better. This week has been amazing. Today has been a little bit of a daze, really.
“It has been my life. I’ve known nothing else and Paul has been the boss forever.
“Honestly, I’ve not known how I have felt all day. I have tried to soak it all in and enjoy the day and then this has happened. It will take a long time to sink in.
“I could not have dreamed of it being better. We will have a good celebration tonight – and tomorrow!”