Nicol out to seize his chance at Dublin Festival

Lady Buttons and Adam Nicol nearside join battle with La Bague Au Roi on Charlie Hall Chase day at Wetherby.
Lady Buttons and Adam Nicol nearside join battle with La Bague Au Roi on Charlie Hall Chase day at Wetherby.
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ADAM Nicol takes a very different approach to those jockeys who complain about a lack of rides – and opportunities.

“There will always be lads who want to be in my shoes,” the six-foot tall rider tells The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.

His logic is two-fold. For six years, he has been stable jockey to Phil Kirby – one of Yorkshre’s most ambitious trainers.

He now has a chance to ride horses like stable star Lady Buttons at this weekend’s inaugural Dublin Racing Festival.

This is the ultra-consistent horse bred by owners Keith and Jayne Sivills, who live near Whitby, who could take Nicol’s career to new heights if she wins the Paddy Mullins Mares Handicap Hurdle at Leopardstown and continues Yorkshire jump racing’s recent renaissance.

It is no tall order for a horse who has already provided seven victories for 28-year-old Nicol, who lives at Brompton-on-Swale.

After all, the mare’s rise through the ranks – she was good enough to be seventh in the 2014 Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival – mirrors Nicol’s steady progress.

“She’s a pleasure to ride,” says Nicol, whose love of horses stems from an idyllic childhood riding ponies on Northumberland’s beaches. “She’s got that presence about her. It’s almost she knows she’s quite good.

“Every lad out there needs a horse like her to get going on the big days.”

Nicol certainly does after this progressive horse was only narrowly beaten by the Warren Greatrex-trained La Bague Au Roi – now a favourite for the Cheltenham Festival – in the prestigious Mares Hurdle at Wetherby on Charlie Hall Chase day.

It was a thrilling finish – champion jockey Richard Johnson had to be at his strongest on the victor – and there was initial disappointment that Lady Buttons, trained at Kirby’s purpose-built Catterick yard, had not prevailed.

Not from Nicol. He knew the reason was that Lady Buttons had not competed since a run on the Flat at Salisbury nearly two months previously and this is a horse that thrives on her racing.

He was vindicated when she won a competitive chase at Bangor less than a fortnight later. “The run at Wetherby just sharpened her up,” he said. “The form stacks up, with La Bague Au Roi winning at both Kempton and Ascot since.

“A lot of people thought she should have won. She won 12 days later at Bangor and I could tell how far she had come on for the run.”

This rider’s instinct explains why Nicol and Kirby believe that they have a winning chance at Leopardstown tomorrow after the horse’s fine fourth at the Dublin track over Christmas when the two-and-a-half-mile trip proved to be just too far.

Dropping back two furlongs in trip is ideal, says the rider, who says he will not be fazed about competing against Ireland’s top horses and jockeys because of his affinity with Lady Buttons and his trust in her.

Born in Seahouses near Alnwick, Nicol grew up surrounded by horses – his mother Marian has run Slate Hall Riding Centre for the past 46 years while he says his father Ian never needed an excuse to have a day off work to go racing.

He loved the freedom of riding ponies on the beach and regrets stopping riding because he was the only boy and he did not think the sport for him.

When he resumed riding at 15 after a day out at Kelso races, he only had a few months to enjoy the thrills of pony racing before turning 16. Yet this, says Nicol, has been the making of top young riders on both sides of the Irish Sea like the all-conquering Bowen brothers, Sean and James, Jack Kennedy, Johnny Burke and many others.

Stints in Scotland with Rose Dobbin and Lucinda Russell saw Nicol’s career gradually take off before he moved to Middleham to work for Andy Crook – and start riding out once a week for Kirby.

Nicol describes Kirby “as one of the lads in the yard” and says he does not recall his trainer ever saying a word out of turn.

Happy horses, says the jockey, invariably mean winning horses and this is reflected by the stable’s improving strike rate – on the Flat and over jumps – since moving to Catterick over a year ago.

He says it is significant that Kirby acquired Asum from the yard of Dan Skelton, National Hunt racing’s most ruthless accumulator of winners, who had deemed the horse to be past his best. “Not many trainers do that,” he observed.

Fortunate that he is not put up overweight for many years despite his height – “I eat healthily but I can have a take-away if I want one” – Nicol believes he has perfected a quietly effective riding style to suit his physical size.

Even though there have been times in the past when he did not think he would make the grade, he could not be more content. He is on 15 winners for the season and looking to beat the career-best 23 successes that he tallied in both 2015-16 and 2016-17.

“I said to my mum that if I had not moved to Middleham when I did, I may not have ridden out my claim. Now I’m in a very fortunate position,” adds Nicol, who studies top riders like Noel Fehily and Ruby Walsh to watch their horsemanship and tactics.

“Danny Cook didn’t ride a horse until he was 16. Now he’s on Definitly Red, who has a good chance in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

“It’s amazing what can happen if you keep your head down and keep kicking. It’s a good yard to be in and I’m still young enough. I really wouldn’t want to be working anywhere else.”