David Nicholson

Jumps jockey turned trainer


David Nicholson, jockey and racehorse trainer: born Epsom, Surrey 19 March 1939; married 1962 Dinah Pugh (two sons); died 27 August 2006.

Right down to the garish sheepskin coat and red socks that he insisted on wearing, David Nicholson was one of jump racing's most colourful characters. Anyone who came across Nicholson, either as a gaunt, chiselled jockey or later as a more rounded trainer, would have their own anecdote about him - most of them good, a few of them bad.

Nicknamed "The Duke" from an early age, Nicholson was a singular man. Intensely loyal, and hugely respected, he none the less had an opinionated side that could see him prod a finger forcibly in the direction of those he disagreed with. His abrupt, at times confrontational, manner once led the Jockey Club to hold an inquiry into whether he had hit a photographer at a Boxing Day race meeting.

As with many racing legends, a term which those within the sport would comfortably apply to him, David Nicholson was destined for an equine career effectively from birth. His father, "Frenchie" Nicholson, was a successful trainer renowned for his "academy" of young riders, some who went on to become among the finest jockeys ever, such as Pat Eddery and Walter Swinburn.

Although plagued by asthma as a child, David was determined to carve out his own career in the saddle and was apprenticed to his father from the age of 12. Those who remember Nicholson only as a trainer would be amazed by just how long he kept his tall frame lean enough to ride 538 winners over jumps.

His first ride, when he was 16, was a winner - his father's Fairval at Chepstow in 1955. His best season came in 1964/65 when finishing third to two greats, Terry Biddlecombe and Stan Mellor, in the jockeys' championship, while his biggest single success came when partnering the renowned Mill House to victory in the 1967 Whitbread Gold Cup.

Other big wins included Farmer's Boy in the 1960 Imperial Cup; Hoodwinked in the 1962 Cathcart Chase; Amber Loch in the 1963 Grand Annual Chase; Elan in the 1965 Schweppes Gold Trophy; Tantalum in the 1971 Champion Chase; and King Pele and Current Romance in the 1973 Gloucestershire Hurdle and County Hurdle, both at Cheltenham.

Nicholson continued riding until 1974, despite having set up as a trainer six years earlier at Condicote in Gloucestershire. He was a tough jockey who enjoyed the challenge of coaxing even the most difficult of horses to complete.

Considering his successes as a rider at the Cheltenham Festival, the most important jump meeting of the season, held in March each year, Nicholson initially had a frustrating time there as a trainer and it was not until 1986 that he had his first winners, with Solar Cloud in the Triumph Hurdle and Charter Party in the National Hunt Handicap Chase. Before that he had come closest to the hallowed Cheltenham winner's enclosure with the talented Broadsword in the 1981 Triumph Hurdle and 1982 Champion Hurdle.

Still, once the duck was broken, the Festival winners flowed. Nicholson's biggest success as a trainer came with Charter Party when the long shot ran out a six-length winner of the 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup. The following season he finished third to Desert Orchid in an epic running of the season's top chase.

Charter Party was a pivotal horse for Nicholson. He was ridden by Richard Dunwoody, one of a number of outstanding jockeys who rode for the Nicholson stable. Emulating the academy element of his father, Nicholson nurtured the early careers of Dunwoody and Peter Scudamore - both of whom became champion jockeys - as well as Adrian Maguire, who was unlucky not to achieve the same feat, and Richard Johnson, who would have been champion many times over were he not from the same weighing-room generation as the incomparable Tony McCoy.

Charter Party's owner Colin Smith, meanwhile, was instrumental in taking Nicholson to the next level as a trainer by setting him up, in October 1992, in the new purpose-built Jackdaws Castle stables, near Cheltenham. Prior to that, Nicholson's business acumen had not proved as astute as his handling of horses and jockeys. It was even reported once that he had asked Scudamore for financial aid as he was unable to pay his stable staff their weekly wages.

Under Smith, however, Nicholson was a salaried trainer and thrived on being relieved of the pecuniary responsibilities of running a stable. In an era dominated by Martin Pipe, Nicholson was one of the few men who were able to compete at the top level with him. Were it not for Nicholson's having been champion trainer for the 1993/94 and 1994/95 seasons, Pipe would have claimed a run of 17 consecutive titles.

Nicholson's best horses during this renaissance included the two-miler Viking Flagship, winner in 1994 and 1995 of the Champion Chase, the undoubted highlight of the Cheltenham Festival's middle day.

Another stable star was Barton Bank, who won the prestigious Boxing Day King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Chase in 1993. A year later, Barton Bank slipped up at the final fence under Adrian Maguire when looking to have the race in his grasp. It was in the aftermath of this incident that Nicholson was accused of hitting a Racing Post photographer, Edward Whittaker. The Jockey Club held an inquiry into the altercation and, while unable to prove that any contact had taken place, did warn the trainer severely about his behaviour.

The incident was soon forgotten, which was typical of Nicholson. If cross words were said, they weren't allowed to fester. He also developed his own method for dealing with press enquiries concerning his horses. Wasting no time or words, he simply answered - if all was well - that they were "A1", waiting for a request to expand on such a brief description. Those requests rarely followed.

After a reported fall-out with Colin Smith in 1999, Nicholson retired, but was recruited by the British Horseracing Board, and then the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, to help promote the British bloodstock industry. He did so with typical gusto, using his acclaimed right finger to force home a point.

Richard Griffiths

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