Racing: Dandy relishes role in the land of the dragons

In typical down-to-earth fashion, Britain's sprint specialist David Nicholls prepares for Sunday's big contest. By Richard Edmondson in Hong Kong.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
DAVID NICHOLLS looked out over the glittering waters of Repulse Bay on Hong Kong Island yesterday while, outside the shark nets, water- skiers weaved between the pleasure junks and sampans. It was all quite a sight, and not one that "Dandy" thought he would be participating in for much of his 43 years.

Racing, and particularly activity on the Flat, may be a fragile democracy yet it still allows moments like these. When the little man sends Rudi's Pet and Proud Native out for the Hong Kong Sprint on Sunday they will not know their mentor is from the sport's factory floor. They will just run and they are likely to run very fast indeed.

David Nicholls's has been one of the most dramatic success stories. In conjunction with his jockey wife, Alex Greaves, he has risen from the ranks of an ex-jockey struggling for a foothold as a trainer to at least one racing peak. When it comes to sprints, and especially sprint handicaps, Dandy is now the man.

Tall Trees Stables at Sessay, just outside Thirsk, may seem an unlikely bastion, but that is exactly what it is. Nicholls's achievements have earned him a place in the sun and this week he is activating the prize. He was not an inconspicuous figure yesterday in the grounds of a hotel with a gaping hole in its edifice. Local belief has it that the dragons which inhabit the hills here must have an escape route.

The trainer himself does not have such fanciful thoughts. Nicholls believes in graft and sweat, and showmanship is no part of him. He scurried around yesterday with Greaves in close attendance, in search of a reviving port and lemon. Henry Rix, the tipster-owner of Rudi's Pet, reported that his man had enjoyed himself the last evening. "He was drinking Budweiser," Rix said. "By the boat-load. But he was on the gallops first thing."

Dandy was wearing a baseball cap over his skull stubble during a draw for race positions that was combined with an exhibition of local haute couture. It was most clear he was a participant in only the former. He was rather enjoying himself.

"It's great being treated like the King of England," the trainer said. "If I said it was first-class here I wouldn't be saying enough. I just hope we can find horses in the yard for next year."

The profile has not been this high since an earlier life when Nicholls was the jockey in 1982 of Soba, the flying filly which amassed 11 victories including the Stewards' Cup. The training foundations were laid seven years ago in a potato field in Yorkshire, and even now Tall Trees is no chocolate box. The home-made boxes are constructed of unpainted chipboard walls, the floors pure earth. It is where the trainer came from.

"Good luck to Sheikh Mohammed and God bless him, but he is as he is and I am as I am," Nicholls says. "I'll train Daylami for him if he likes.

"But I never look over the garden wall at anyone else. I'm happy with what I've got and making my own bed.

"You can get as much satisfaction out of training a bad horse to win a seller as you can winning a decent race with a good horse. You can achieve something that people higher up in the [trainers'] table wouldn't even think about. Common-sense is the great thing with horses."

Among the beneficiaries have been Rudi's Pet and Proud Native, who will come storming down Sha Tin's 1,000m on Sunday afternoon. The former, who is unbeaten in the hands of Kieren Fallon this year, is generally the favoured of the two but Dandy has time also for his wife's mount. "Proud Native hasn't got the speed of Rudi's Pet, but he knows where the door is and he'll be knocking on it at the end," he says.

"He's ignorant - yes, awkward - yes, a bastard - yes, but there's always that quality there. I guarantee you'll hear his name out there inside the final furlong.

"I like my horses to be like hard, little footballers. Digging in hard and going where it hurts when the going gets tough." It's a life policy.