There is a strong woman behind many fine trainers but very few like Jane Williams. Asked to describe the division of labour between herself and her husband, Nick, Mrs Williams replies fast and firm. “It’s very easy. I do all the work, he takes all the credit.”
The tone and expression indicate she is at least half-serious. Nick Williams is making a stir in jump racing by competing at high level with only a fraction of the horses trained by his leading rivals, but he is certainly not doing it alone. A morning spent on their converted dairy farm, on the southern edge of Exmoor, confirms that
this is no ordinary racing couple, no conventional training stable.
We are sitting in the low-beamed dining room of their 15th century farmhouse. Outside, a builder is working on a new stone patio, the latest stage in transforming a derelict property they took on ten years ago. “We had no money at all when we came here, we’re not wealthy people,” Nick insists. “Some months,” his wife adds, “we had to borrow to pay the mortgage. We’ve done this through hard work – and we’ve put three children through public school.”
Now, the rolling 100 acres of fine Devon land houses 35 horses, eight stable staff, 40 Hereford cows and assorted poultry enjoying the muddy legacy of midwinter floods. Two lots have already braved the windswept conditions, working four times up the woodchip gallop that completes its climb on land borrowed from a neighbouring farmer. The next lot is set for a showjumping session in a specially created ring. Come lunchtime, all the horses will be put out for three hours in the paddocks that punctuate the property.
It’s very easy. I do the training and write up programmes for each horse, but Nick takes all the credit
“I don’t want everyone else to know all our methods but we certainly couldn’t do this operation with 100 horses,” Jane says. “I do all the training and I write up the programmes for each horse in a book every morning. They are all individual. Philip Hobbs once said that training was nothing more than galloping them up a hill twice a day. That’s about as far away as you could get from what we do.”
Nick, 55, has just sat down from buttering his wife’s toast. It seems a conciliatory gesture but it cuts no ice when
talk moves to his recent sale of the accountancy practice they had run together in nearby South Molton. “I was coerced into giving it up,” Jane says. “I still don’t want to.”
The idea is to free up time for the flourishing training business, though both are continuing to work for long-standing clients of the practice. It is a change of direction neither had expected but the demands and ambitions of Culverhill Farm are growing. “We could have 50 or 60 horses if we wanted them,” Nick says. “We’ve been turning them down. Not many yards have a waiting list, but we do.”
Two years ago, Nick Williams had sat in another part of the property and told me he thought it was possible to become champion trainer with 35 horses. His wife scoffs at the memory. “Nick’s a twit,” she says bluntly. “After that, so many people asked him for horses that he panicked and bought a lot of bad ones.” Her husband adopts a suitably penitent expression. “I don’t say anything now.”
Indeed, he makes a habit of not saying much. Jane points out that the antipathy towards the media, widely ascribed to her, is actually down to Nick. “You’re just like that solicitor out of David Copperfield you are always quoting,” she scolds him. “Mr Spenlow,” he confirms. “Whenever he wanted to get out of something, he would always say that his partner, Mr Jorkins, would never allow it.”
I sold Pistolet Noir because I was in a strop. I said I was going to divorce Nick and needed money
This is typical of the jousting between the couple. Usually it is good-natured. Jane is forthright and emotional, Nick absorbent and analytical. By their own admission, they bicker a lot. Sometimes, it gets worse, such as the day in 2010 when Jane spraypainted ‘Nick, You Are A Bastard’ on one of the outside walls. Or the day when she took it into her head to sell Pistolet Noir.
Bought cheaply in France, ‘Pistol’ was favourite for the Triumph Hurdle two years ago. I ask why he was sold to Paul Nicholls. “You answer that question,” Nick prompts. Jane does not hesitate. “I sold him because I was in a strop. I said I was going to divorce Nick – because we are always getting divorced – and I needed the money to buy a house. I rang up Anthony Bromley and the deal was done.”
Rather than resent such admissions of discord, Nick rocks with laughter. He laughs a lot and is agreeable company. “Commercially, it was a good call – he didn’t train on and the money paid for a new block of stables,” he says eventually. “But it happened by accident. Personally, I would sell just about any horse, any time, because they are unbelievably fragile. The best way of making money in this game is by selling horses. The crunch would come if we got a very good one but Jane didn’t want a divorce that day – would the big offer be accepted then?”
Across the table, Jane reminds him that this has already happened. In the year of Pistolet Noir, the Williamses also trained Me Voici, who won the Finale Hurdle and the Victor Ludorum. “We were offered £250,000 and turned it down,” she says. “What do we do this for? I’m 50 this year. I’m not going to live for ever. There has to be some pleasure in it. He was the best horse we’ll ever have. Nick and I both regarded him in the same league as Long Run. I’d never have sold him but he died at four and I’m still getting over it. His picture is my computer screensaver.” And then she shows her soft side and quietly weeps.
It is not all confrontation between the two. Far from it. “Nick understands the programme book much better than I do,” Jane says. “And he has an encyclopaedic memory for horses and races. That puts him streets ahead of most people in this business and helps our operation a lot. I can’t even remember yesterday.”
There is, though, something of the accidental trainer about Nick Williams, an impression he readily accepts. “I’m a London boy, with no racing background at all,” he says. “I cut my teeth with a spell as a stable lad when I was 18. It was at Bramley, near Guildford – Willie Musson was the trainer and Mark Tompkins was his assistant. It didn’t last long. I was doing anything to make money, from being a waiter in a local pub to dressing up in a beret and selling onions in a supermarket. Then, at 21, I went into accountancy.
“Both Jane and I were married before and we met through accountancy rather than racing. Jane did have horses in her background but I’m still not sure how it went from having one horse under permit to what we are doing now.”
Out on the gallops, Nick is little help in identifying the horses cantering past. “We have so many bays with white faces,” he says with that infectious laugh. “They all look the same to me.” Yet later, walking round their stables, he is a mine of information about pedigree, prices and planned races. He is also firm on certain issues. “I won’t have a horsewalker on the place,” he says. “You have to train the mental side of the horse, as well as the physical side. Monotony is no help with that.”
He refuses to allow any owner a dominant role at the yard. That policy was tested when Jared Sullivan took his horses away from Charlie Mann and divided them between Williams and Nicholls. “He rang out of the blue but I said we couldn’t have more than four,” he recalls. “For Non Stop was the one I really wanted and I hope he’ll run in the Jewson at Cheltenham. I wasn’t so keen on Gauvain, because he’d broken down, but horses like him seem to thrive in our regime. He’s on target for the Ryanair.”
Cheltenham has an irresistible lure for Williams, despite his lack of fortune there so far. “We’ve yet to have a Festival winner and quite a few of ours have got injured on quick ground there,” he says. “I hate the meeting in some ways – if I had my way, it would be run on slow ground at Newbury in February – but that doesn’t mean we won’t compete.” Indeed, he rattled off 15 potential Festival contenders, more than half the horses he has run so far this season.
Whether the Festival squad will include either of the horses with which he is most closely identified remains in doubt. Diamond Harry and Reve de Sivola, who both run for the Paul Duffy Diamond Partnership, were not in strong work during January. “Reve has a little injury and we still hope he’ll come right for Cheltenham,” Williams says. The other horse just brings a deep sigh. “He’s mentally fragile, physically fragile. A nightmare.”
Twice this season Diamond Harry has been withdrawn, lame, on the morning of a big race. He did run in the Betfair Chase but disappointed. Jane points out this is one horse in the yard with which her husband does all the training. “I’ve made a bad job of it, then, haven’t I,” he responds mournfully. “He’s run once since winning the Hennessy in 2010. Oddly, I would run him in the Grand National. I think he’s got more chance in that than the Gold Cup.”
There are many more to excite the trainer – Urbain de Sivola, bought for Sullivan to contest the Triumph Hurdle, the revitalised Zaynar and the returning James de Vassy. “And we have plenty of nice unraced horses to run before the end of the season,” he says with relish.
Who is going to ride them is up in the air. James Reveley took over as stable jockey when Daryl Jacob left to join Nicholls but it has not been a smooth transition. “Daryl had told me about 20 times he would not go to Paul, so that left a bit of a sour taste with me,” Nick says. “But the arrangement with James is loose and he has sometimes chosen to ride in the north when we have runners. It’s unresolved. In fact, the whole issue of a stable jockey is an area of conflict between Jane and me.”
It is not the only one, that much is clear. Yet, somehow, it works. As I leave, there are smiles, laughter and anticipation of the next stage in the grand plan. “The optimum is to have 35 or 40 horses all rated 140 or above,” Nick says. “We both agree on that!”
An eye for bargains has been one of the arresting qualities of the Williams operation. Hennessy hero Diamond Harry cost only 11,000 guineas, while Grade 1 winners Reve De Sivola and Me Voici plus Grade 2 scorer Pistolet Noir were all picked up cheaply in France as yearlings.
Though Nick Williams insists there is “no real science” to the system – “just a nice type of individual with a good pedigree”– his wife gives him more credit, saying: “People underestimate what Nick knows about pedigrees. It’s a lifetime of learning and he has an instinctive feel for it. We’re realistic. If it is something Highflyer want, we’re not going to get it. But Nick’s knowledge of bloodstock is unbeatable and, while others may go for fashionable sires, we go for the dam line.
“We have a set routine when we go to a sale. Nick will have gone through the catalogue closely and marked up the horses he is interested in. We only ever look at those horses, so we are fully concentrated, and we have a system of rating them. The ones we like are often the ones others don’t, hence the bargains.”