'I am strict. Damn strict but always fair. Discipline is the main thing'
Steve Dennis on the career of a jockey, trainer and nurturer of men
First published on Thursday, February 14, 2013
They were easy to spot. They were young men with short hair, wearing a suit and tie and well-polished shoes, they were quiet, polite, dutiful and keen. If these clues didn't give them away there was a surer method – you'd usually find them in the winner's enclosure.
They were Frenchie Nicholson's boys, a group of apprentice Flat jockeys almost without parallel in racing, their manifold success during the 1960s and 1970s an enduring testament to the man who nurtured their talent from raw novice to Classic winner. His most notable graduates were Pat Eddery, Tony Murray, Paul Cook, Walter Swinburn, Richard Fox and Ian Johnson. Nicholson gave them a start in life, held the ladder steady while they began the climb to the top.
Herbert 'Frenchie' Nicholson was born 100 years ago last month. He was given the nickname of 'Little Frenchie' by the lads at Epsom trainer Stanley Wootton's academy, who noticed he was wearing a French raincoat when he arrived there as a teenager after working in France. The nickname stuck, and so did the lessons he learned from Wootton, whose reputation as a producer of jockeys exceeded even that of Nicholson 40 years later.
Those who remember him give near-identical knee-jerk responses – a great man, a tough man, a hard taskmaster, pretty stern, very strict – but as the initial jolt to the memory subsides the recollections become suffused with warmth. Nicholson may have been a disciplinarian who expected his apprentices to share his sturdy work ethic, but he had their best interests at heart and their gratitude is as great a legacy as is their success.
Before Nicholson became a mentor of young jockeys he was himself a jump jockey, and a good one. He won the 1942 Cheltenham Gold Cup on Medoc and the 1936 Champion Hurdle on Victor Norman, although neither horse is remembered as particularly noteworthy these days. By far the best horse Nicholson rode was the great Golden Miller, although the association came towards the end of the horse's unparalleled career and their three wins together were gained in minor company.
Nicholson displayed all the fortitude and foolhardiness of the modern jump jockey – he had broken his leg three months before that Champion Hurdle success, and the ride on Victor Norman was his first one back. The injury had not healed properly, though, and victory came with the postscript of a permanent limp.
Of the three strings to his bow, Nicholson's training career was perhaps the least notable. It was initially hamstrung by the combination of riding and training, and although he had occasional stars such as Aintree perennial Irish Lizard and Fighting Kate, life as a trainer of horses soon became secondary to life as a trainer of jockeys.
"The two-legged variety are a lot easier to train," he once told a journalist. "They cost less to keep, you don't have to feed them, and they earn you a lot more money."
The shift in emphasis was prompted by the death in 1960 of leading owner and leading eccentric Dorothy Paget, who owned all but six horses in the Prestbury yard. The late David Nicholson, eldest son of Frenchie and later champion trainer, illustrated the situation in his autobiography The Duke.
"My parents were very concerned about the future," he wrote. "They knew they would have to give up training racehorses or quickly find another source of income. Unbeknownst to them, salvation was at hand."
Paul Cook, who arrived at the yard in the spring of 1960, was the first of Nicholson's apprentices and one of the finest. In the space of five years Nicholson transformed Cook from a schoolboy who had never sat on a horse into a dual champion apprentice. It was the first flowering of the methods that would bear fruit time and time again, described memorably in The Duke.
"I am strict. Damn strict but always fair. Discipline is the main thing, without that the boys are nothing. Manners are crucial. Politeness comes first," said Frenchie.
It was the credo impressed upon him by Wootton, a martinet who by all accounts tended to favour the iron fist without recourse to the velvet glove. However, Nicholson had more about him than his old mentor. Hard without being harsh, gruff without being grim, a disciplinarian without being a slavedriver, Nicholson brought all his consummate experience to bear on his apprentices while leavening the experience with a twinkly-eyed boyishness that shone through his no-nonsense demeanour.
"The first words he ever said to me were 'get your hair cut'," says Swinburn. "Yet those words were accompanied by a wink. Did I get my hair cut? I most certainly did."
Nicholson endeavoured not only to make jockeys of his boys but to make well-rounded people of them too. Dinah Nicholson, David's wife, saw the results at first hand.
"He liked to see people doing it right," she says. "He was very keen that the apprentices dressed right, acted properly.
"He taught them to write and say thank you to an owner for a ride - he saw it as part of helping them grow up the right way. Yes he was strict, but in the way of a father figure. It was a happy yard, and if any of the boys had a problem they knew they could go and see him or his wife Diana."
Brough Scott was not a Nicholson apprentice but cut his teeth as an amateur at the yard, and remembers his old mentor as an inspiration, a coach par excellence.
"He loved to pass on his accumulated wisdom, he loved to teach, he was supportive, he understood," Scott says.
"It was a very exciting time for me and the feeling was always that he shared that excitement, which is a fantastically involving thing for young people. He was a natural coach who had a really good idea of the basic orthodoxy of riding, upon which the rider was free to develop his ability.
"And his bark was much worse than his bite. There was often a twinkle in his eye and he could be very boyish – and he was fond of the phrase 'the devil makes work for idle hands'."
Nicholson possessed a startling work ethic that he wasted little time in instilling in his charges. In The Duke, David Nicholson remembers that " ... he did not like being idle. If he had a spare afternoon, he would go out for a couple of hours cutting down weeds around the schooling fences or scything nettles". It was a regime his boys were to become well accustomed to.
"We'd start early and finish the morning at around 1pm," says Eddery, laughter in his voice. "Then he'd have us back in his garden for a couple of hours before evening stables - lifting stones, cutting thistles, picking fruit. You didn't get a lot of time to yourself.
"But it was good for us to work like that – he set us a good example and we respected him for it. There was the odd kick up the backside, of course, and sometimes you'd be scared of him, but he was a good man."
The stories are legion. Michael Dickinson arrived at the yard as a "very green 17-year-old amateur" and had to adapt quickly to the Nicholson doctrine.
"It was quite a culture shock for me and I thought I was going to be fired three times in the first week, but I stuck at it," Dickinson says.
"Sometimes we would go to the top of Cleeve Hill and cut gorse, tie it into bundles and take them down to make them into hurdles. However, Frenchie was the only one who had gloves and the rest of us used to get covered in thorns.
"I noticed he used to muck out his pony each morning, which I felt was inappropriate for 'The Master', so I used to arrive at work half an hour before all the other lads and mucked out his pony for him – that way I earned a few precious brownie points."
Swinburn did his time picking up stones too, as did Fred Messer, who did his five years at the same time as Tony Murray and Eddery, and adapted to the regime so well he later had no trouble working for Ryan Price, another master of the old-school education.
"I really appreciated it," says Messer. "You got out what you put in. You had to graft but you got on, and I enjoyed working for him. I always tried to be there first in the morning because I wanted to work, I felt myself improving, felt myself getting somewhere thanks to Frenchie.
"I rode Cullen to win the Great Met – my first winner – and the owners were pleased and invited me to their box for a glass of champagne. Frenchie was there too – although he never drank at the races – and he just said to me 'Boy, what are you doing? Get yourself back downstairs, you might pick up a spare ride'."
There were kindnesses too, no doubt gruffly administered but heartfelt nonetheless. Chris Middleton, a ten-year veteran at the yard, well remembers Nicholson's generosity.
"If he could help you out, he did," he says. "He paid for me and my wife Veronica to go to Jersey for our honeymoon. It was his wedding present to us – it would have been Tewkesbury otherwise."
Nicholson's thorough grounding meant that not only did he expect his apprentices to behave out of the saddle, he expected them to look the part during a race. Scott says that even going down to the start you could always spot a Nicholson boy for his style, and it was the same coming back.
"It was all hands and heels," says Messer. "Woe betide if you picked up your stick; he told you to push and kick until you were past the post.
"Other trainers knew that if you worked for Frenchie you could do the job properly, and we all picked up lots of outside rides as a result."
Frenchie's wife Diana played almost as vital a role as her husband in the boys' education. David's brother Richard remembers that she always offered an apprentice having his first ride half a crown for every horse he beat home, a huge encouragement for a youngster on just ten shillings a week. Diana also clocked up many thousands of miles driving apprentices to race meetings – Frenchie didn't like to drive – and walked the course with each one.
"Diana used to drive and Frenchie sat in the passenger seat," says Swinburn. "Now and again he'd turn his head and say 'where are you drawn today?' or 'what's the ground like?', little things to make sure you were on the ball, had done your homework."
The results spoke for themselves.
Cook, Eddery and Murray were champion apprentices, and of course Eddery went on to enjoy a glittering career. David Nicholson was moulded into a fine jockey and champion trainer. His brother Richard, at hand with statistics, reckons his father took on around 50 apprentices between 1961 and 1979, with those 50 riding more than a thousand winners between them before graduating to the senior ranks.
Perhaps the greatest example of Nicholson's influence came in the 1982 Derby, when three of his old boys – Eddery on Golden Fleece, Cook on Touching Wood and Murray on Silver Hawk – filled the first three places at Epsom.
That is one of Nicholson's legacies, the other is in the hearts and minds of those he taught. "He was a great man to be around, I have nothing but good memories of my time there," says Swinburn.
"If I had my time again I'd go straight back there," says Messer, and then there is Dickinson's "I have only praise, admiration and gratitude for the year I spent with Frenchie", Eddery's simple "He made me what I am", and Scott's "I wouldn't have got anywhere at all without my time at Frenchie's".
Now and again Frenchie Nicholson was heard to say of his boys: "They arrived on bicycles and left in Rolls-Royces." Richer in that respect, certainly, yet also enriched in so many other ways.
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