How did your involvement in horseracing start and what was the spur?
I started riding my cousins’ horses and later had my own horse as a teenager. Racing was never far away because my Dad has always loved the sport. I started riding out at weekends for Steve Norton, our local trainer in Yorkshire, and it was then that I knew racing was all I wanted to do.
You quit race-riding aged 25 – do you have any regrets?
I wasn’t making a living as a jockey so I couldn’t have carried on and, in any case, I get far more pleasure and a much bigger buzz from training a winner than I did riding one.
This season has been your best yet in terms of winners and prize-money. How have you managed to attract a better type of horse and would you like to expand further?
We have been so lucky that owners have supported us and been prepared to spend more money and send us a better quality of horse. Our Irish bloodstock agent Gerry Hogan has done very well for us and managed to get quite a few of our current stars on a reasonable budget compared with some of the big yards.
I’d be happy to get up to 50 or 60 horses, but no more because I think you would then lose the personal touch and that is very important to us.
You must have learnt a lot working for ‘The Duke’ David Nicholson. What were the main things?
So many things, but manners and turnout stand out as he was a stickler for both, and now I am very aware of their importance. They are the lasting impression of The Duke and lie behind the way we operate and hopefully help us to attract owners and horses.
Hygiene within the yard was also a massive thing with him and we try to be as hygienic as possible, which hopefully helps keep the bugs away.
How to take a telling-off must have been one of the lessons…
Certainly, and I hope I am similar to him. He bollocked you when you needed it, but then moved on and the next moment was grand with you. I admired him for that. There’s nothing worse than someone who sulks all day.
I’m sure some of the youngsters coming into racing today wouldn’t last a week with The Duke. He certainly did us more good than harm. Warren Marston, who was with us at The Duke’s, often says he taught us all such important ‘life skills’, which is so true.
In what way has your time with The Duke influenced your outlook on life?
He taught me to make the most of the good days as they are sometimes few and far between. He also taught me patience with horses, although I think I’ve had to learn that myself as well, as I’m definitely more patient than I was when I started.
He died too young and that, along with losing both of Belinda’s parents too young (they both died in 2010), has taught us to make the most of life.
You train at Luckley in Gloucestershire, close to the village of Condicote from where The Duke sent out so many winners. Do you use any of his old facilities or former staff?
We certainly do still have some members of his team, namely Jeremy Swan, the vet, Maggie Turner, physio, and Deb Butler, who does all the clipping. Miranda Theobald and Pete Welch still ride out and The Duke’s youngest son John rides out occasionally. His widow, Dinah, makes all our coloured racing browbands, non-slip Nicho-nets and is in the Nicholson Racing Syndicate, owners of Sky Calling.
We use his old woodchip gallop, which we have resurfaced with a wax finish which I couldn’t be happier with. It has stood up to -13C so far this winter and we’ve been able to canter and school on it when other trainers have been restricted to walking on the roads.
Would you describe yourself as a hands-on trainer?
After you’ve done it all yourself, as I did in the first couple of years, it is hard to let go, even when you expand and trust others to do some of the jobs you have always done. But I have a fantastic team and I am getting better at delegating!
I have always done all the tractor work but am training someone to do that job now, which will be a great help. I try to ride out as much as I can and still enjoy riding work.
How big a role does your wife Belinda, who won point-to-points and hunter chases as a rider, play in your operation?
Belinda plays a massive role and is a huge support to me. It is lucky that she loves racing too as it really is a 24/7 job. She does most of the administration and we are often doing entries and other jobs for a few hours in the evenings after our boys have gone to bed; she often reminds me that most racing secretaries have finished work hours ago!
She tries to keep me positive on bad days and has to have a thick skin for the times I’m not in great form. She’s a real people person and enjoys spending time with the owners.
What made you join the Cheltenham groundstaff and exactly what was your role during your time at Prestbury Park?
I was at a bit of a loss of what to do when I finished race-riding and Belinda noticed an advert for a groundsman, and I thought it would be good to learn that side of the business. Cheltenham was an amazing place to work and because I had race-ridden, Simon Claisse would often discuss the line of the running rail and similar matters on the course with me.
I really enjoyed racedays as I followed the runners round with the vets and doctors. I learnt how to build fences and hurdles as well, a job I enjoyed and which helped me when I started training as I could then build my entire schooling ground. I also learnt even more about ground conditions than when I was riding and consequently have learnt how to maintain and keep my gallops in top condition.
In those days did you ever imagine you would train winners there, and possibly even at the Festival?
No, never. It is an amazing experience and when Belinda and I are waiting to greet our winners at the bottom of the shoot it is always very emotional. As is walking into the winner’s enclosure with the fabulous reception we have always received.
What are you hoping to run at this year’s Festival and what would be your best chance of a winner?
Benbane Head (NH Chase), Champion Court (Jewson), Havingotascoobydo (Centenary Ch), Wolf Moon (Cross Country/Kim Muir), Court In Session (Coral Cup), All For Free (Centenary/Grand Annual), Hard To Swallow (Albert Bartlett), Any Currency (Cross Country), Flementime (Bumper). If any one of these hits the target it will be a dream come true.
Most of your horses are Irish-bred, many from the point-to-point scene. Why are you drawn to these horses and do you feel they offer better value than French-breds?
I have had lots of success with horses that have run well or won their Irish point-to-points and are ready to go on. I trust Gerry Hogan so much. He was with me at The Duke’s and he knows the Irish horses inside out. I am not against French-breds and got a couple of them recently through Richard Hobson, who I’ll be using again as it is best to keep your options open.
Champion Court cost £130,000. Is there a limit on what you would pay?
He is the most expensive horse we have had and has luckily lived up to it. My only limit is my owners’ pockets. If an owner likes a horse and wants to spend more, then that’s fine, but Gerry Hogan wouldn’t let them pay the price if he didn’t think the horse was worth it. I admire him for that, as I’m sure plenty of others would just keep bidding.
Your blog is one of the best in racing. How important is this and your website to your operation?
It is hugely important to me and we are always thrilled when people comment on it. It keeps owners, friends and even those who don’t know us involved in the day to day running of the yard, and we enjoy doing it too. It is hard work keeping the website up to date, but when people show their appreciation it makes the task worthwhile.
How has Alain Cawley settled into his role riding for the stable?
Ian Popham is our stable jockey but is out injured, having broken his pelvis in September. We were lucky that Alain was thinking of moving from Ireland just after Ian’s injury. He was advised to give me a ring and has fitted in really well.
Like Ian, he is naturally talented but also happy to listen to advice and is a great team player. I’d hate to lose him when Ian is back and hope to have enough horses to be able to use both of them.
Are you for or against the changes to the whip rules?
Against, as jockeys are so anti using the whip out in the country. I am sure some horses that need a few reminders out in the country are getting beaten because jockeys are not willing to risk being banned. I am not sure what to suggest, but the current rules are not working and are making me and my owners so frustrated. If you can’t hold your position in a race, it’s as good as over.
How important is prize-money to your stable and is it something you consider when making race entries?
There are races where the prize-money is so insulting I won’t even consider entering. The owner could win the race and come away without even covering his monthly training bill. Prize-money is important to everyone and when we have a good run it gives me great pleasure to see the staff getting a big payout from their pool money as they put so much into the job. It is great when they can reap some of the rewards.
You are married with two young children. Do you find balancing work and family life difficult?
It is hard and they have to be understanding. I am lucky that I can see them at lunchtimes when other office-based Dads wouldn’t be able to. But I am not often around at weekends when they’d like to do family things. We try to make the most of any time we do have together as it flies by and you can’t get it back.
Luckily, Freddie and Harry absolutely love racing and Belinda brings them whenever possible. They also love being out in the yard with the team and the horses. They have a beautiful dapple grey rocking horse, given to them by one of our owners, Andrew Jones. And Freddie in particular looks very stylish. However, even 18-month-old Harry is struggling with the new whip rules as he’s already a bit too stick happy!