Wessex Horse Power Helen Stiles meets Dorset race trainer Nick Mitchell
PUBLISHED: 18:49 26 March 2013 | UPDATED: 21:18 05 April 2013
On the gallops with Dorset racing trainer Nick Mitchell and The Listener
With its hilly terrain and thriving point-to-point scene Dorset has a reputation for creating powerful National Hunt champions.Helen Stiles joined racing trainer Nick Mitchell to watch some of his horses in action in the Piddle Valley.
Im sitting in racing trainer Nick Mitchells Land Rover on the ridge of a hill; below me the Piddle Valley is bathed in mist. In his wing mirror we watch four of Nicks babies cantering up the all weather gallop. Arent they gorgeous, coos Nick, like a proud father. The dark grey is Leave It Be. He smiles fondly as the handsome horse prances by. Next to him is Phone Home, the large grey behind is Over The Rubicon, and next to him is Ricketyrock, one of our home bred horses.
Nick watches their every move as they canter past. A lifetime of working with horses has given him a sixth sense when it comes to spotting any niggles or issues which could affect the horses performance.
See the way the horses slope when they walk, ears pricked up, thats a good sign it means theyre relaxed, he says as the riders walk them back down the hill to repeat the exercise. Those two youngsters at the front he indicates to Leave It Be and Phone Home who are hopping like school boys caught short, Theyre what I call racing snakes; they are light, narrow and athletic, not like the big old fashioned racers. Look at the way theyre dancing, ears pricked they are dying to canter again. You have to be careful not to over train racing snakes. You need to keep them enthusiastic about their training.
Nick is steeped in racing. His father, Richard has trained famous steeplechasers such as Cool Ground and Rooster Booster. Nick and his brother Tim, who works for The Racing Post, were both successful point-to-point riders and amateur jockeys; his sister Sophie was twice Champion Lady Jockey.
Nicks mother Elsie excelled at pony club games as a youngster and subsequently as an amateur jump jockey, beating Prince Charles at Newton Abbot. She was on page 3 of The Sun, laughs Nick. The headline was Mum of Three Beats Prince. It was Prince Charles first ever race and mum absolutely thrashed him, though he was very gracious in defeat. Dad also rode against him a few times; they both fell at the same fence at Cheltenham. Dad got a lift back with the Special Services guys in their Range Rover.
After taking his A levels in Weymouth, Nick worked as a Pupil Assistant at his fathers stables, then as a point-to-point trainer at a private yard in Milton Abbas. All my work was at Dorset yards, I went from there to spend six months with champion National Hunt trainer Paul Nicholls. That really opened my eyes. I had never known a jumps trainer use such speed in training. I soon realised that this was why his horses were that much fitter and better.
As we watch his own horses do their final ride up the gallops, Nick tells me that there was a mini-revolution training of horses in the Eighties; high-profile trainers such as Martin Pipe started to use interval style training with their horses. To be honest its something we have been doing in Dorset for years, - his arm waves towards the hills of the Piddle Valley. We would go up a hill as many times as possible to build up their stamina, take them gently down to recover, then up the hill again. Martin incorporated this into his training programme and it turned the whole of jump race training on its head.
Nick went on to work as assistant to trainer Robert Alner at his yard near Sturminster Newton. Over the next seven years he worked with horses such as Kingscliff, Sir Rembrandt and The Listener. Robert was brilliant at picking out horses, Nick recalls. He never spent fortunes, but the horses he got had a good solid blood line all the way through - pure national hunt, pure jump racing.
Different qualities are needed for jump horses to those that run on the flat. Flats horses need to be strong and light like Mo Farah, whereas three mile chasers are more like a Steve Redgrave type; they need their steak and chips, you build them up so they have that extra reserve to draw on. Roberts horses always carried a little bit more weight than other trainers horses. They were heavier, stronger and harder, they had staying power.
Nick had always planned to train under his own name. In 2007, he took his Trainer Modules and, shortly after completing his course, had the chance to set up a yard in a former dairy in his home village of Piddletrenthide. James Boughey, the local landowner was using it to store farm equipment. I was amazed at the space, says Nick. There were big roomy boxes and nearby was a grass gallop which was used by local hunting and point-to-point people. James was mad keen on having racing in the valley. He loves his racing and now has horses in training with me and my dad. His dads yard is just the other side of the village.
Three years ago, Nick invested in an all weather gallop. This has proved invaluable over the recent wet summer and even soggier winter. Once this would have been seen as a luxury for a racing trainer, but these days it is a necessity, he asserts. The gallop, which runs up the hill, consists of a waxed fibre sand and rubber mixture which sits on top of porous tarmac, below is a clean stone bed with drainage underneath. The way the weather has been, this has been a saving grace. Even the horses are sick of the wet weather! he laughs.
We drive back to the yard, which is situated just around the corner from the house he shares with wife Lucy and their three children Nancy, Gabriel and Dominic. Nick tells me that, after a tough first year as a trainer, things changed with the arrival of a horse called Ellerslie George We bought him at Doncaster in the May, he had come from trainer Howard Johnsons stables and was a gorgeous horse. Nick had his first win with Ellerslie George nine months later. That autumn the horse won again and The Listener, who by this stage had joined Nicks yard, won as well.
The following year, 2009, two of his horses won on the same day. I won the biggest race in Ireland and the biggest race in England that day. The Racing Post headline read: Mitchell announces himself on the big stage I read that and thought this really is happening then. I can do it.
The star of Nicks 15-horse yard is without doubt The Listener, a magnificent grey whose nickname is George. Nick first met The Listener in 2003 at Robert Alners yard. He was a battleship grey four-year-old full of pep. I rode him from the start, so he is very much a part of my life, says Nick with obvious fondness. He was an idiot as a youngster! He had no respect for hurdles and would kick through them. The Listener came into his own the following year at his first novice chase at Exeter, where he revealed a natural ability to handle really heavy muddy ground. He positively revelled in it and jumped off it like it was a road. He won at a canter, recalls Nick as he scratches the greys ears. We quickly realised that well drained courses were doing him no favours and decided to run him on the softer peat tracks in Ireland.
The bold decision paid off when The Listener ran at Leopardstown in the Lexus Chase where he beat both War Of Attrition and Beef Or Salmon on their home course. Nick and Robert were delighted It was one of the happiest days of my life; the conditions were perfect. Nick says this was only topped a few years later when The Listener won for him at Down Royal, in the Champion Chase. But the Lexus really was his finest hour.
The Listener, now 14 years old, has hung up his racing plates He leads the babies over the hurdles and does a spot of show jumping, says Nick. In the summer he goes back to his owner who puts him in a field with more grass than he can eat and feeds him Polos. He comes back the size of a house, hes a terrible pig.
Nick is not one to push his horses; he says he is looking at a longer game. I like to get to know a horse and let it develop its natural ability, I want to see its potential emerge gradually and see what it will be capable of in its life.
Horses are herd animals so, to get the best out of them, Nick often pairs them up with a sparring partner, or training buddy such as in the case of Phone Home and Leave It Be who I had watched egging each other on that morning. However there are some more unusual partnerships in the racing world. Nick points to a shaggy looking Palomino in the field next to the yard Thats Jingo, my daughters pony. Hes 25. He often comes to the races with us. It can be very daunting for a highly strung young horse to be loaded into a transporter. Stick a pony in there like Jingo and suddenly its not so bad.
It turns out that some very famous equine nerves have been calmed by even more bizarre stable companion, as Nick reveals: Remittance Man lived with a sheep called Nobby who went everywhere with him and lived in his stable. Trainer Nicky Henderson replaced Nobby with another sheep; youd think any old sheep would do, but a star like Remittance Man was having none of it. The woolly usurper came flying over the stable door and Nobby was quickly returned! Nicks father had an equally unusual pairing Dad had a horse back in the Nineties called None so Wise, nicknamed Ernie. Ernies stable companion was a female goat called Eric!
In the yard, the four horses have returned from their exercise. As they are hosed down Nick checks with the riders that all was OK. Once rubbed down, a blanket is thrown over these exquisite equine athletes and they return to their stable for some chill out time. Nick says: Its always a good sign when a horse throws itself down for a roll on their back, they then get up and shake off the hay, thats the sign of a healthy horse; little foibles like that and seeing their ears pricked at the end of exercise shows that you have a happy animal.
Before I leave I ask him which of his horses would be one to watch?
Electric Mayhem, says Nick pointing to a big handsome chestnut. The horses ears prick up as he hears his name, I gently stroke the chestnuts velvety nose as it appears over his stall. I think he could be something really special, murmurs Nick thoughtfully.
Most of the horses in Nicks yard are at the start of their racing careers. Having seen the horses enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, the careful planning that goes into their training and the passion that Nick and his team have for their horses, I predict great things from this stable tucked away in Dorsets Piddle Valley.
To find out more about Nick Mitchell and his horses visit nickmitchellracing.com