Wednesday 17 July 2019

Comeback king Nicholson rues staff shortages for small trainers

In the stables

John Nicholoson admits the industry can be a struggle for smaller trainers. Photo: Patrick McCann
John Nicholoson admits the industry can be a struggle for smaller trainers. Photo: Patrick McCann
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

He has already made more comebacks than Frank Sinatra, so when John Nicholson threatens to call time on his training career for the umpteenth time, it's taken with a pinch of salt.

One of the game's many characters and never short of a yarn, it's not easy for smaller handlers like Nicholson to keep going in the face of an ultra-competitive environment, but racing has always been his passion, and a hobby.

Coming from good stock, it was a logical move for John to follow his late father Tom - an owner, breeder and trainer of some note - into racing as he always had a hand in the game.

Growing up in Kilkenny, Nicholson watched his dad land the Irish Cesarewitch on three occasions with Bigaroon (1970, '71 and '73), a particularly notable achievement given he was deemed a whistler and a grunter by the vets when sent to the sales.

His father also owned and bred Vulpine, which won the 1967 Irish National for Paddy Mullins, bought 1974 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Captain Christy as a foal before selling him on, while he also enjoyed Classic success as an owner with Prince's Polly in the 1982 Irish 1,000 Guineas.

It's that rich family history, as well as his love for everything equine, that has stopped the Johnstown native from packing it in, although things were particularly tough before Benruben's Bumper win at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival.

A virus had taken hold in his Thurles yard - he is still a staunch Kilkenny man despite relocating to Tipperary - since September and it crippled optimism and morale in his stable, where there are seven in full-time training.

Benruben's entry was more of "an excuse to get a day out at Christmas than anything else" but lifted spirits significantly and left them with a pep in their step as he had his first winner at the Foxrock track in 25 years.

Like many in racing, Nicholson has hands "in a lot of pots", admitting that they "never refuse money" in a tough industry while he also has a handful of broodmares in his care - including former stable stars Knockcroghery and Mrs Batt - although he admits their cup is far from overflowing.

Farming with cattle and sheep is a must for Nicholson as the stable staff simply aren't there to make a small operation function efficiently, something he bemoans.

"Staff is our problem, it's pressure now from the big lads but when you get a winner, it boosts you up and you say, 'Ah shag it, we'll go on for another while' but it's next to impossible to get good staff," Nicholson says.

"I've three lads in the yard and only for them I wouldn't manage. It's a big challenge for the smaller lads. All good staff want to work in the big stables where the glory and the limelight is.

"It's hard to get lads to work in the small yards. I suppose we'd be doing more work than other lads. The lads with me are equally adaptable to do a bit with me on the farm as well as with the horses, we all muck in together."

Nicholson has been a regular supporter of jockey Mark Enright throughout his career - he even provided him with his first professional winner - and 'Fish' will be on board again with improvement expected if Benruben makes his second chase start on Thursday in Thurles.

He credits his handful of loyal owners for sticking with him in difficult times and feels the wheel will turn again with a nice crop of younger horses ready to make their mark in the coming seasons.

"We have a great strike-rate for the runners we have. We don't run horses if we think they're no good and that's the way we keep it. I'd be very straight with owners, if I think the horse is no good I'll tell them to take them home, I wouldn't waste any man's money."

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