Racing: In great nick and in all weathers

Sue Montgomery meets a trainer for all seasons already taking the year by storm
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The Independent Online
FEW sportsmen can have enjoyed a more auspicious start to 1999 than Nick Littmoden. On Wednesday, in the less than scenic surroundings of soggy Dunstall Park at Wolverhampton, he notched the first treble of his short but increasingly sweet training career. All-weather racing tends to be regarded with a degree of contempt by Flat purists but it provides a valid living at this time of year for man and beast not involved in obstacle racing. And Littmoden has used the bread-and-butter dirt circuit as a springboard to what he has every reason to hope will be the jam of future years.

A former bank clerk and wannabe Michael Owen, Littmoden progressed to his present status - his string has grown from three to 65 in just four years, his win score from nine to 40, and he has recently bought a yard in Newmarket - along mildly unconventional lines. Although he was brought up in the Sussex countryside and occasionally sat on a pony as a small child, he had little real contact with horses.

What he really wanted to do was play football, but good sense, in the form of a clutch of O levels, a business studies course and a job in a bank in Uckfield, took over. Conversion came in the form of the road to Lewes when his stepfather, who had some Arabian horses, summoned the assistance of the local trainer and alleged expert, the late Mick Masson, to deal with a recalcitrant animal.

"I think he tried to lasso it with a fishing rod", recalled Littmoden, "but after he'd gone his assistant Martin Burns sorted it out. He also asked me if I'd like to come and ride out. I hadn't sat on anything since I was about 10, but he taught me to ride a racehorse, and that was it. I finally knew what wanted to do in life. And it was being a trainer, not a jockey. I did have a few rides as an amateur, but it was being involved and in contact with the horses as individuals I loved."

Littmoden spent time with another of the Lewes mafia, John Ffitch-Heyes, and with Charles Cyzer before setting up his own small livery yard, where he broke, schooled, prepped and rested horses for trainers. The place also was used as an equine clinic for a local veterinary practice, which gave him an invaluable insight into the myriad physical problems that beset racehorses.

Six months at the feet of Jenny Pitman completed his apprenticeship and late in 1994 he took out a licence for the first time as resident salaried trainer at the racecourse entrepreneur Ron Muddle's new all-weather venture, Southwell. He started with three horses, and won with all of them.

If you believe in fate and life's rich tapestry, you would swear it was all meant to be. "When Mick Masson gave up, Martin went to work at Hesmonds Stud," Littmoden said. "I went down one day to see the yearlings and he pointed out one that he was particularly keen on, a Cadeaux Genereux colt.

"I saw the horse again at John Dunlop's the following year, when he'd had an attack of ringworm and didn't look great. He ran three times and showed nothing, and was sold for just 1,350 guineas at the sales. Derek Kent, who was at Southwell briefly, had bought him and when I walked into the barn, there he was."

The horse was Cretan Gift, whose exploits started to draw attention to his rookie trainer. After gelding him and giving him time to recover from a split pastern, Littmoden has won 12 races with him, including a Group Three contest in Ireland.

His skill with hospital cases was further underlined last year when he took valuable handicaps at Kempton and Newmarket with the bad- winded six-year-old Tertium and will surely be challenged again in the near future. One of his charges is Coastal Bluff, dead-heater in the Nunthorpe Stakes of 1997 but out of form last year and sold on after a series of physical problems.

Littmoden's remarkable success since his move to Wolverhampton in 1995 has enabled him to take the plunge and invest in his own yard, Julie Cecil's excellently equipped former base, Southgate Stables.

Some may question the wisdom of expanding in a business in which so many seem to struggle. But Littmoden has no doubts. "For a start, I don't believe it is falling apart," he said. "But then I'm an ultra- optimist, and I want success and to get to the top of my particular tree. But also, I've found I can make a living out of it."

Uniquely, he intends splitting his resources, with the A-team in Newmarket and the back-up squad at Wolverhampton. "I don't want to knock the all- weather circuit because it has been good to me," he said, "and my results have brought me new clients and better horses.

"I know the first two years will be a struggle but in the long term I know I can make it. I've made a profit so far, though not a massive one, but I wouldn't want to be doing anything else and as long as I can keep making a living I'll continue."

Littmoden is in the habit of setting himself targets. Last year it was to train 30 winners, which he exceeded by 10 and put himself in the top 50 in the country. This year he has upped his sights to 40, of which he has notched four in the first week. Banking's loss is undoubtedly racing's gain.