THERE were many times when Adam Nicol feared that he would not return to the saddle after a seemingly innocuous New Year’s Day fall left him with a badly broken femur.
Yet his thoughts then turned to Phil Kirby’s Lady Buttons, the horse that made him as a jump jockey, and her comeback in today’s Listed Mares’ Hurdle at Wetherby – one of the feature races on Charlie Hall Chase day.
“To be honest with you, it is the only reason I have come back,” a candid Nicol told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “I’ve had great support off Phil. It is a massive yard and a great feeling of camaraderie.
I wouldn’t be back to where I am now if it wasn’t for Jack Berry House.Adam Nicol
“I enjoy working there and love going to ride out – but you need that big horse. She’s nearly 10 and I’ve been riding her since I was three. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.”
A year ago, Nicol was in the form of his life. A hat-trick of big race successes on Lady Buttons at Wetherby, Newbury and Doncaster was taking the 29-year-old’s career to new heights.
Then calamity struck. Riding at Musselburgh on January 1, Nicol came to grief at the penultimate flight. “I still had every chance jumping two out. It was a soft fall,” he recalls.
“As I was rolling away, my leg was clipped by a horse coming from behind. It was really bad luck and nobody’s fault. I broke my left femur clean in half and I needed every day of 10 months to get back.”
Fulsome of his treatment at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, surgeons inserted a 46 centimetre steel rod in the jockey’s left leg – it runs from his knee joint to his hip.
Yet it was just the beginning of Nicol’s physical – and mental – battle to return to full fitness and today’s reunion with Lady Buttons, who is owned by North Yorkshire pub owners Keith and Jayne Sivills.
The fact they never lost faith in a rider who has ridden their star horse to 11 out of her 12 career victories helped to boost the confidence of a rider whose decade-long career in the saddle had yielded 135 successes.
But the unnaturally tall horseman is the first to admit that there have been “dark days” after the fall, and subsequent surgery, left him with a pronounced limp and effectively having to learn to walk again under the tutelage of medics at Jack Berry House, the Injured Jockeys Fund’s rehabilitation centre in Malton.
“I wouldn’t be back to where I am now if it wasn’t for Jack Berry House,” said the quietly-spoken Nicol, whose spirits were boosted by a comeback winner aboard the Kirby-trained Tekiblue De L’Orme at Carlisle last week. “I’ve had a lot of support from family and friends.
“I knew Lady Buttons was definitely going to be running this season and I used that as my motivation. Knowing I had the support of Phil, as well as Keith and Jayne saying Lady Buttons was still my ride, kept me going.
“The fall left me with a limp. I was losing weight, down to 9st 3lb, and I was in a really bad way. I didn’t realise I was limping but I had to learn to walk correctly – heel to toe. I’ve had good days – and bad days. But it was the days I was finding it hard at the gym that were the toughest. With a broken collarbone you can see an improvement every week. With my leg, it was every month, and there were times when I was struggling to do stuff. Since I’ve come back, it’s done nothing but improve. I have had 10 rides but it hasn’t bothered me.”
Just as encouraging, reports Nicol, is that Lady Buttons appears to be as “enthusiastic as ever” as the mare canters up the gallops at Kirby’s stables near Catterick – or in schooling sessions at Middleham.
He admits it was tough to watch the horse race at the major Cheltenham and Aintree festivals under Tommy Dowson – but he was proud at how Lady Buttons ran in defeat.
Nicol says it was a “turning point” in his year when he got to ride Lady Buttons on the gallops – normally this is entrusted to girlfriend Jennie Durrans.“It’s been fantastic to get back on her at home,” he said. “Jennie rides her every day but I’ve been lucky to ride Lady Buttons on the majority of her work at Middleham.
“I think she is a lot wiser now, but she knows the game. She only just does enough in her work – and it is the same in her races if she hits the front too soon. She thinks she’s won. But it explains why she has raced for so long – she looks after herself. While it wasn’t great when she had 18 months off with a tendon, it was probably a blessing in disguise – it gave her time to grow and mature – and I’m very lucky to have her.”