From success in the saddle to sprint riches as a trainer
David Nicholls was a successful jockey who became an even more successful trainer. As a rider he was best known for his association with that remarkable mare Soba, who won 11 races in the 1982 season, but he will be better remembered as a trainer of sprinters who won nearly every top sprint in Britain and many in Ireland as well.
From his early days as a jockey he was known as Dandy, the nickname coming from the actress Dandy Nichols, who played Else, wife of the bigoted and controversial Alf Garnett, the main character of the popular 1970s BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.
Although Dandy by name, Nicholls was no dandy by nature, for as a teenager he was by his own admission something of a hooligan who ran away from home and ended up at the Wetherby stables of Deryck Bastiman, a businessman-cum-successful trainer.
Born in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, in 1956, Nicholls had no racing background but it was apparent from his early days he had a natural affinity with horses and many would say that throughout his life he was more at home with animals than with people.
He served his apprenticeship with Bastiman, who became a second father to him, and rode his first winner as a 17-year-old when partnering Hunting Tower at Chester in July 1973.
After a spell with Clifford Watts, who owned and trained his own horses near the Yorkshire coastal town of Bridlington, he eventually joined forces with the man who was to have the biggest influence in his life, David Chapman.
He was already his regular jockey when one April afternoon in 1982 he went out to ride the three-year-old filly Soba in a 6f maiden at Thirsk.
She had not shown a great deal the previous season and was sent off at 33-1. She won that day, and won again and again, in fact during the season she clocked up a remarkable 11 wins, including the Gosforth Park Cup and Stewards' Cup – in which she broke the Goodwood track record – and went up 56lb in the handicap.
The following year she was contesting Pattern races but was unfortunate to come up against another special sprinting filly in Habibti, who beat her into second in the July Cup, Nunthorpe Stakes, Vernons Sprint Cup and finally in the Prix de l'Abbaye.
Much of her success was down to Nicholls. Chapman recalled: "Soba wasn't easy to train, she used to bronc, but David could manage her well and they were a great partnership."
It was a tit-for-tat arrangement as Nicholls admitted: "She put me on the map at a time when I was scratching around for a living. Winning the Stewards' Cup was a great day but for me the highlight was the Abbaye. Habibti kept beating us but Soba nearly got to her that day."
Soba was the best winner he rode, although he was also associated with another of the Chapman 'greats', the prolific winner Chaplins Club who he rode to seven wins in 1985.
After 20 years as a jockey, during which time he rode 421 winners, Nicholls gave up riding and his constant battle with his weight and, by all accounts, clerks of the scales, and embarked on what was to prove an even more successful career as a trainer.
He began with just five horses and at his peak had more than a hundred in his Tall Trees Stables at Sessay near Thirsk. His first winner, Make Mine A Double at Southwell in December 1993, came less than six months after his final winner as a rider, and within three years he was a potent force to be reckoned with sprinters.
Like his former boss Chapman, Nicholls had a special relationship with sprinters, for he was as adept at training their minds as their bodies, and after Venture Capitalist had given him his first Pattern winner in the Duke of York Stakes in May 1996, his career as a trainer took off.
For the next 20 years he enjoyed remarkable success at all levels. Ya Malak, who he had bought for 23,000gns at Doncaster less than a year earlier, gave him the first of his six wins at Group 1 level when dead-heating with Coastal Bluff in a memorable all-Yorkshire finish to the Nunthorpe Stakes when ridden by his wife-to-be Alex Greaves.
Continent, bought for 40,000gns from Juddmonte, won the Prix de l'Abbaye in 2002 having won the July Cup earlier in the season when he narrowly beat his stablemate Bahamian Pirate, who two years later gave Nicholls a second win in the Nunthorpe Stakes.
One of his best-loved horses and perhaps his biggest success story was the chestnut Regal Parade, who was bred by Harry Herbert's Highclere Stud. Although initially sold to John Ferguson for 430,000gns and sent to be trained by Mark Johnston, for whom he won three times, Nicholls was able to pick him up for just 16,000gns at Tattersalls in October 2007.
He proved to be a snip, as the following September he won the Ayr Gold Cup, in 2009 he won the Group 1 Sprint Cup at Haydock and the following year showed just what a bargain buy he was by landing the Group 1 Maurice de Gheest at Deauville.
Nicholls also won Pattern races with Proud Native, Rudi's Pet, Strike Up The Band, Fire Up The Band, Moss Vale, Tax Free, Garnica and Inxile, none of whom cost a fortune and won far more than their purchase price.
Although he did well over the years in Pattern events, his record in sprint handicaps was little short of remarkable considering how competitive the races were. Nicholls won the Ayr Gold Cup six times, with three of the winners going on to win Group 1s. Funfair Wane won it twice and his final winner, Redford in 2010, went on to win another big pot, the totesport.com Handicap, over a furlong further at Ascot a week later.
Other big sprints to go his way were the Stewards' Cup, which he won three times, the Wokingham, Gosforth Park Cup (four times), the Epsom Dash (four times), Great St Wilfrid Handicap twice and the Buckingham Palace Stakes.
Nicholls was quite rightly known as the sprint king, although he was not always the punters' pal as he tended to go into big handicaps multiply represented. He ran 12 horses in the 2003 Stewards' Sprint Cup, the consolation race for the Stewards' Cup and 11 in the same race the following year.
His last winner, and the best horse he had in his final years as a trainer was Sovereign Debt, who he bought for 145,000gns on behalf of one of his longest standing patrons Lady O'Reilly and sent him out to win seven races, including four Listed contests, a Group 3 at Tipperary and the £92,000 local Group 2 at Doha in February this year.
He was his last winner as soon afterwards, Nicholls – who had faced a trial in August on two charges of sexual assault relating to incidents at his yard – shocked the racing world by calling time on a training career that spanned 20 years and yielded 1,269 winners, citing financial problems as the reason.