Racing: David Nicholson, top jumps trainer, dies

Sometimes arrogant, often abrasive, but the sport was unanimous in its admiration of a racing legend. Sue Montgomery reports
Click to follow

The death of a prominent sporting figure often prompts the collective 'mourns' cliché - in this case 'racing mourns' - as a respectful, but not always strictly accurate, catch-all. But the outpouring of regret over the passing of David Nicholson, who left life late on Sunday at the age of only 67, was notable for its genuine feeling. This complex, sometimes wrongly understood, man left his mark not only on the game he loved but also on its people; friends, employees and rivals alike.

Nicholson - in the top flight as both a jump jockey and a jumping trainer - was what is usually, euphemistically, termed a 'character', with a definite tendency towards abrasiveness, arrogance (hence his nickname, from a young age, of 'the Duke') and single-mindedness. His forthright attitude, though, masked other qualities; he was also loyal, kind, generous and magnanimous and sporting in defeat.

"He was passionate about the sport and about the horses," said his training colleague Nicky Henderson yesterday. "He gave everything to it, very much larger than life. But it was not just his achievements and results, and the great horses he trained. It was the values he instilled; the principles, manners and etiquette. He conducted himself with total honesty and integrity, and showed people how to be the right sort of person to get on with the job. This is very much a game of ups and downs and he took them both properly and stoically, better than most. That will be his legacy forever."

Racing was in Nicholson's genes; his father Frenchie was a top-class jockey and later one of the sport's most distinguished race-riding tutors; his mother Diana was a member of the famous Cheltenham-based Holman dynasty. Having a famous father can be a mixed blessing, but there was never any question that Nicholson would not follow him into the family business, despite being much taller than the norm for a jockey.

He was apprenticed in 1951 at the age of 12 and won on his first hurdles ride in public - Fairval at Chepstow in April 1955. It was the first of 583 in Britain before his retirement from the saddle in 1974. In a riders' golden era he was good, but not the best; his highest position in the jockey's table was third in the 1964/65 season and his most notable win came on an ageing Mill House in the 1967 Whitbread Gold Cup.

It was as a trainer - he started at Condicote, Gloucestershire, in 1968 - that Nicholson truly etched his name into the record books. His first winner came courtesy of Arctic Coral at Warwick in January 1969, with himself in the saddle; his two careers overlapped for a time. His first really good horse the one who put him on the map, was Broadsword, though he was beaten into second place in his two important Cheltenham Festival forays, the 1981 Triumph Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle the following year.

Nicholson's first Festival winner was Solar Cloud in the 1986 Triumph Hurdle, the most recent Anzum in the 1999 Stayers' Hurdle. Those in between included Charter Party in the 1988 Gold Cup, Mysilv in the 1994 Triumph Hurdle, Waterloo Boy in the 1989 Arkle Trophy and Viking Flagship in the 1994 and 1995 Queen Mother Champion Chases. Crack two-miler Viking Flagship was the best and arguably the gamest horse he trained; Barton Bank, who took the 1993 King George VI Chase and was unlucky not to win the following year, was almost as good.

But perhaps Nicholson's most remarkable training performance was his handling of Moorcroft Boy, who broke three bones in his neck in a fall at Aintree in 1994, six months after finishing third in the Grand National. It was an injury that would have killed many, but the gelding not only recovered but came back to the track and win the 1996 Scottish Grand National.

Despite racetrack success, Nicholson's business at Condicote failed but, bailed out by friends, he rebuilt his career as a salaried trainer at the brand-new Jackdaws Castle establishment, funded by Charter Party's part-owner Colin Smith, in 1992. Two championships followed, in 1994 and 1995 (he was the only man to interrupt Martin Pipe's hegemony), and in his seven years at Jackdaws Castle he saddled nearly half his total number of winners.

Appropriately, Nicholson - who failed to make the round 1,500 domestic jumps winners by one - announced the end of his 31-year training career before a packed arena in the Cheltenham winner's enclosure in November 1999.

Like his father, Nicholson was also a fine trainer of jockeys, with Peter Scudamore, Richard Dunwoody, Adrian Maguire and Richard Johnson among those through his hands. All agree on their mentor's influence for the better. "I went straight to him as a kid from school," said Scudamore. "He taught us to do things correctly and prepared us for life."

Since his retirement Nicholson had maintained his involvement in the sport and presence around the tracks (in trademark sheepskin coat and red socks) as a promoter of British-bred jumpers, but his health had been deteriorating. In some attitudes he was a man from another era, but there is no doubting the debt owed him. "He was a man with huge principles and his own opinions," added Henderson. "We locked horns on the racecourse every day, sometimes friendly sometimes a bit more intense. But it was always fun."

The Duke's domain Career and big race winners

Born: 19 March, 1939.

Married: To Dinah, 31 May, 1962. Children: Philip and John.

Riding career: Apprenticed to father, 'Frenchie'. Rode first winner, Fairval, on first ride over jumps at Chepstow in 1955. Flat and jump jockey from 1951 to 1974. Rode 583 winners in Great Britain.

Best season: 63 winners in 1966/7.

Big race winners: Clover Bud (Welsh National 1960), Elan (Schweppes Gold Trophy 1965), Farmer's Boy (Imperial Cup 1960), Limonali (Welsh National 1959 and 1961), Mill House (Whitbread Gold Cup 1967).

Training career: First trainer's licence: 1968. First winner: Arctic Coral, Warwick, 9 January, 1969. Champion National Hunt trainer: 1993/4, 1994/5. Trained 1,499 winners over jumps in Great Britain.

Big race winners: Cheltenham Gold Cup: Charter Party 1988; King George VI Chase: Barton Bank 1993; Another Coral (Mackeson Gold Cup 1991); Bigsun (Ritz Club Chase 1990); Carobee (Seagram Top Novices' Hurdle 1992); Mighty Mogul (Christmas Hurdle 1992); Solar Cloud (Triumph Hurdle 1986); Thetford Forest (Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle 1992); Very Promising (H & T Walker Gold Cup 1985); Viking Flagship (Queen Mother Champion Chase 1994 and 1995); Waterloo Boy (Arkle Chase 1989, Castleford Chase 1990 and 1991; Tingle Creek Chase 1991), What A Buck (SGB Chase 1975), Moorcroft Boy (Scottish National 1996).