Cheltenham Festival: Andrew Nicholson
- Credit: Archant
Debbie Graham spoke to Olympian Andrew Nicholson, who is swapping event horses for racehorses as he gears up for Cheltenham
Galloping a mile and a half on a fit thoroughbred is just a regular part of New Zealander Andrew Nicholson’s day job.
Based near Marlborough on the very edge of the Cotswolds, he is one of the world’s top event riders, and during his 30-year career has notched up six Olympic Games and seven World Championships, winning medals of every colour, and has a reputation of being one of the very best across country.
But this March one gallop will be different from all the others. Instead of the familiar tracks of a cross-country course, he will be pounding the hallowed turf of Cheltenham’s famous racecourse in front of thousands of cheering public in a bid to win the charity race St Patrick’s Derby at the prestigious Cheltenham Festival.
And as a racing fan it’s a challenge he is relishing.
“I think if you haven’t been to Cheltenham you don’t appreciate the course, the buzz and the excitement of it. It is amazing; it’s like a lot of great sporting events in that it’s being there that matters to get the atmosphere and Cheltenham really has an atmosphere.”
But the pressure will be on as although he must be one of the favourites to lift the trophy thanks to his equestrian skills, he lacks race riding experience, something many of his 11 rivals have, including Clifford Baker who is head lad to champion trainer Paul Nicholls.
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Although no race riding experience is not quite true as his son Zac is quick to point out. Andrew did once race a camel. “I was second in the final but I think it was rigged as only one camel would go in front,” he laughs.
So how does he rate his chances in this one?
“I will be as competitive as I can be but it’s the horse that has to run the mile and a half and lug me up the hill. As long as I do my job right and not make a fool of myself I will be happy and if I have got a horse that can really gallop who knows? But as long as I can enjoy it and not let anyone down, that is the main thing.”
2015 is the sixth year of the race, and for the first time it will be raising money for the Injured Jockey Fund (for the previous five years the race was in aid of Cancer Research UK), which celebrates its 50th year in 2015. The charity was set up in 1964 by Lord Oaksey, after the devastating accidents of Tim Brookshaw and Paddy Farrell, and supports jockeys whose injuries have forced them to give up riding.
The choice of charity is particularly poignant as the race will almost be two years to the day that jockey J T McNamara had a tragic accident that left him paralysed.
It is a charity close to Andrew’s heart and one he wants to do it proud…
“It’s a great cause. The top jockeys can be very successful but there are a lot of others who aren’t as successful and need a bit of help when things go wrong.”
“We are dependent on the ongoing goodwill and financial aid from the industry to fund the vital work that we do, and would like to thank everyone in advance for their support of the riders,” said Lisa Hancock, Chief Executive of the Injured Jockeys Fund
Working with horses is all Andrew has ever wanted to do. Growing up in New Zealand, horses were a natural part of his childhood.
“I started on ponies. I was really lucky that where I lived was next door to the pony club and there was a polo field there so it was easy for me to ride a pony and go to pony club.”
Jobs riding racehorses followed, and he would ride out for trainers in the morning and then do his own horses in the afternoon, buying and selling to make money, and competing, particularly eventing, when he got the chance.
Then aged 18 he arrived in England with racehorse trainer Derek Kent who gave him a job, a place to stay and time to event.
He spent three years doing that and eventing in his spare time. From there he got rides, found a few owners started buying and selling, and began to make a name for himself.
Results soon followed, and for the last 30 or so years he has been a stalwart of the NZ team, and competed at Badminton Horse Trials a record 33 times, although he is yet to win the event. And now in his fifties, he has no thoughts of retiring.
“I want to keep going as long as I feel I am competitive enough. This year we start at Badminton and hope we can do something there and carry on – then there’s Burghley.”
Ah yes Burghley in Lincolnshire, one of the country’s most prestigious three day events, and one that has Andrew’s authority stamped all over it. He has won the four-star event five times and three of these wins were in 2012, 2013 and 2014 on Avebury, a horse he bred. So will he be aiming for a record fourth in a row and sixth win in total this year?
“I don’t see why not,” he says “He’s in great shape. It’s hard work round Burghley because of the terrain and you wouldn’t think he was the sort of horse that would thrive on that but he seems to be very happy with it.
“Winning Burghley for the third time on a horse you bred, and for owners that have had horses with me a long time was very special. Just to get somewhere like Burghley three years in the row is impressive, but to win it three years in the row is something else.”
Only a fool would bet against him taking the title a fourth time.
To support Andrew in his race visit his just giving page at www.justgiving.com/andrewnicholsongoesracing
Andrew’s autobiography Focused is out now, priced £20, and published by Racing Post.
Cheltenham Festival runs from March 10-13 and the St Patrick’s Derby is the last race on the Thursday. Visit cheltenham.thejockeyclub.co.uk
For more about racehorse trainers in the Cotswolds, click here to read our article.