OBITUARY: How digger Dandy Nicholls graduated to become The Sprint King

Colm Greaves remembers David ‘Dandy’ Nicholls, the former trainer known as ‘The Sprint King’.

OBITUARY: How digger Dandy Nicholls graduated to become The Sprint King

It was a coincidental seasonal rotation that lasted well over a decade. Study the racing cards on any winter Saturday morning during the early part of this century and there is little doubt that the trainer of multiple fancied runners in that afternoon’s biggest handicap chase would carry the last name Nicholls, first name Paul.

Then repeat the exercise during the flat season and the result is eerily similar, particularly in the big-ticket sprint races. The last name is still Nicholls but this time the first name this time is Dandy.

And that’s where the similarities ended.

Paul, urbane, tweedy, articulate and patiently training expensive horses with golden pedigrees for monied owners.

Dandy, roguish, diminutive and combative, grafting his way to the top by hurriedly buying and improving cheap cast-offs from stables who thought that they had had already squeezed them dry.

David ‘Dandy’ Nicholls died earlier this month, aged 61 after a career that doesn’t do justice to the word ‘colourful’.

His was a poignant final lap. The training empire he had painstakingly constructed for a quarter of a century lay in economic ruin and his personal reputation was hanging by a thread under the cloud of sexual assault charges that were due to go to trial in the summer, charges he had vigorously denied to the last.

For a man of short stature, Nicholls punched a huge presence on the racetracks of Britain and Ireland, first as a jockey, then as a trainer.

Born and reared in the small market town of Pudsey, West Yorkshire his nickname was in tribute to the actress Dandy Nichols who played the long-suffering Else, wife of the xenophobic blowhard Alf Garnett in the popular BBC sitcom Till Death Do Us Part.

Nicholls came from a family with no background in horseracing and it must have come as a surprise, maybe even a relief, to them when he ran away from home to join the stable of Deryck Bastiman in Wetherby at the age of 14. He had by then become what we’d call over here ‘a bit of a gurrier’ but Bastiman recognised that behind the rough exterior there lay a talented, hard-working kid.

He took him on as an apprentice determined to nourish both his talent and transform his lifestyle. Dandy repaid the trust of his new father figure when he rode his first winner for Bastiman on Hunting Tower at Chester in 1973.

His search for a bigger stage brought him eventually to the stable of David Chapman in North Yorkshire, a trainer long noted for his skill in improving cheap sprinters such as Chaplin’s Club, who twice won nine sprint handicaps in a season, including seven in 19 days in 1988. It was at Chapman’s that he teamed up with the remarkable Soba, who defined Dandy Nicholls career as a jockey.

A plainly bred mare with a distaste for being saddled, Soba became one of the iconic rags to riches stories of 20th-century British racing.

Nicholls later recalled that “she was quite a difficult ride and a tough bugger but she gave me many happy days. She put me on the map at a time when I was scratching around for a living.”

1982 was her big year. She was fitted with blinkers and partnered Dandy Nicholls in her first race as a three-year-old and bolted in at Thirsk at 33/1. She went on to win another 10 times that season including six times in five weeks at the height of summer. The high point came at Glorious Goodwood, when drawn in the apparently ‘unwinnable’ stall one, she scorched a huge field in the Stewards Cup and destroyed the six-furlong course record in doing so. By the end of the season her handicap rating had improved by a whopping four stone.

The following season she was a now fully-fledged Group One animal but unfortunately for her and Nicholls this was the year of Habibti, one of the finest race mares of the century. They clashed in four of Europe’s top sprints and Habibti beat her into second every time.

David Chapman fully recognised that Nicholls was key to the making of the legend.

“Much of her success was down to Dandy,” he said. “Soba wasn’t easy to train, but he could manage her and they were a great partnership.”

Over time, Nicholls had begun to struggle with his weight, although as former jockey Marcus Armytage wrote last week, this was often a self-inflicted wound. “My best memory of him was in the sauna at Haydock one Friday night. He arrived in a sweat suit with a bottle of beer and two pasties, which he promptly ate.

“How much have you got to lose?” I inquired. ‘Five pounds before I ate that lot,’ he replied as he began skipping.”

In 1993 Nicholls called time on his 20-year riding career with a respectable total of 421 winners and moved into Tall Trees stable near Thirsk carrying little more than five horses and big training dreams.

In this fairytale the dreams did come true and he went on to win over 1,200 other races, including six Ayr Gold Cups, three Stewards Cups, five Epsom Dashes and a July Cup, two Nunthorpes and a Prix de L’Abbaye on Arc day at Longchamp as well as a host of Irish pattern races.

The proudest day for ‘The Sprint King’ came when he saddled Coastal Bluff ridden by his future wife Alex Greaves, who thus became the first woman to ride a Group One winner in Britain.

Nicholls came to be known and loved for the unconfined joy he showed when triumphant and his irreverently honest post-race interviews, delivered in the thick hometown accent that he had never bothered to shed.

It has been no secret in recent years that both his personal and financial health had deteriorated significantly and it all finally came crashing down in March.

He filed for voluntary liquidation with over a quarter of a million pounds owed, informing the creditors meeting that; “unfortunately I was taken seriously ill with a condition diagnosed as haemochromatosis (iron overload) and after a period in hospital, I found the condition and subsequent treatment extremely debilitating.”

The last ever winner Nicholls trained was Sovereign Debt who took a Group Two contest in Qatar in late February. When his string dispersed after the liquidation the reliable eight-year-old gelding was sent to fellow Yorkshire trainer Ruth Carr who won the Diomed Stakes with him at Epsom on Derby Day. Nicholls died the following day.

Ruth Carr is the granddaughter of David Chapman and took over his stable when he retired in 2008, the very same yard that Soba once graced. The same yard where David ‘Dandy’ Nicholls learned how to find and improve cheap sprinters. Somehow everything seemed unusually neat and tidy when eventually through death he did part.

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