Racing: Duke prepares to lord it

Cheltenham Festival: A trainer to the manor born has a strong hand for this week's big races.
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The Independent Online
IT'S NOT just the horses who are bred and raised for the job. If ever a man had the heritage to make a mark at the Cheltenham Festival, it is David Nicholson. One of his great-grandfathers, William Holman, was winning races at Prestbury Park in the 1840s, while his father, Frenchie, rode winners of the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle and, as a trainer, brought up his family at stables close by the racecourse.

As a jockey, Nicholson rode only one Festival winner, but he has already outstripped his father as a trainer, with Charter Party's Gold Cup seven years ago the highlight. This week, with Barton Bank, Dubacilla, Relkeel and Viking Flagship, he holds a formidable hand.

He is the reigning champion trainer and heads this season's list, and it is no coincidence that such success has come with his move three years ago to Jackdaws Castle, a state-of-the-art training establishment on top of a Cotswold hill. It is a matter of great personal satisfaction that it is within sight of his father's old gallops.

In time-honoured fashion, Nicholson was on a horse before he could walk, was riding racehorses when he was seven, and riding in Flat races at the age of 12. "I was four and a half stone then," he said. "I had to carry more lead than I weighed." As a Flat jockey, Nicholson once beat Lester Piggott, but his increasing size turned him to the jumping game that was in his blood. He left school to be an apprentice to his father and rode his first jumps winner at his first attempt, at Chepstow in 1955.

Despite the fact that he has suffered from asthma all his life ("I can remember times when I was so short of breath I couldn't bend down to put my boots on"), there followed nearly 600 more, but never a Gold Cup. The nearest he came to riding the winner of steeplchasing's crown was when he finished a distant third to Arkle in 1966 on a slowish beast called Snaigow, though he feels he would have been in the shake-up the following year had not the former champion Mill House fallen at the last ditch beside Woodland Venture, who went on to win. "He was flying," Nicholson recalled, "and Terry Biddlecombe and I still argue about who would have won if I'd stood up."

As a trainer, his first Cheltenham winner was 18 years coming, but once Solar Cloud did the business in the 1986 Triumph Hurdle, the brake was off. He said: "People used to talk of a jinx, but I think perhaps we just didn't have the horses." Nicholson had started training, at Condicote, near Stow-on-the-Wold, in 1968, but carried on riding for another six years. He said: "The more everyone told me the two couldn't be combined, the more I tried to do it. It was just pig-headedness, because it was hard, and in the end impossible. As a trainer, you've got to be fairly social, yet I was trying to keep my weight down." These days Nicholson could entertain for Britain, but he still rides out most days and his tall frame weighs in at 12 stone.

The move that took him out of the pack who had vainly chased Martin Pipe for five years was the reward for his association with the property dealer Colin Smith, who acquired the site of Jackdaws Castle, built the yard and gallops and installed his trainer in October 1992. In his first season at Jackdaws Castle, Nicholson trained 100 winners for the first time, and last year wrested the trainer's title from Pipe. He has found an enormous benefit in having private facilities. "Everything is on site," he explained. "You don't have to go on the roads, and we can do what we want when we want. I've been here two and a half years and there are grass gallops I still haven't used. The horses are relaxed, and they thrive. We had some good years at Condicote, but it was like a cabbage patch compared to here."

Nicholson's temperament is such that it occasionally rebounds on him, most recently in a fracas with a photographer who was trying to record an emotional moment between him and the stable jockey, Adrian Maguire, after the last-fence downfall of Barton Bank at Kempton on Boxing Day. Nicholson had since made his peace with the man whose camera he threatened to stuff down his throat, but his behaviour was viewed gravely by racing's masters, and last week the Jockey Club imposed a £1,500 fine for bringing the game into disrepute.

Nicholson is determined, professional, generous and fiercely loyal, but there is perhaps a clue to his other attitudes in his nickname, "The Duke", which stems from the days when he was the ex-public-school son of the master in the training yard. He said: "I think the lads started it. I expect they used to say: `Here he comes, here comes the bloody Duke.' I tend to express my opinions, and if people don't like them, I've got broad shoulders. But my bark must be worse than my bite. I've got staff who have been with me for 17 years."

The owners pay the bills and the jockeys take the risks, but it is the trainers who invest the time and worry and they perhaps feel the losses most. Jump racing is desperately competitive - and nowhere more so than in this week's arena - but some come down to earth more equably than others. Nicholson is always, though, the first to congratulate anyone who beats him.

From his Cotswold eyrie - the top of the gallops are 1,000ft high - his eyes are now focused on the racecourse at the foot of Cleeve Hill. His Champion Hurdle hope is the entrancingly patterned grey Relkeel, owned and bred by the 94-year-old Brigadier Roscoe Harvey; the terrier- like Viking Flagship will be trying for a Champion Chase double; the Triumph Hurdle youngsters are the mudlark Anzum and classy ex-Flat runner Silver Wedge, now blinkered to make him concentrate; and in the Gold Cup itself Barton Bank and the farm-bred mare Dubacilla.

Nicholson is enough of a Cheltenham fixture for the first edition of his familiar sheepskin coat to be in the racecourse museum. "One Festival winner can make the season," he said. "That's not to say it will ruin everything if we don't have a winner, but the one at Cheltenham is the one you remember."