Jockey who suffered horrific injuries including lacerated spleen and broken back quits at 31 to launch training career
A BROKEN arm, leg and back, a lacerated spleen and countless journeys in an ambulance.
That’s enough to test the hardiest of souls.
Add in 13 screws in the hand, a broken nose and cheek, a global pandemic for good measure and who could blame 31-year-old Nicol for hanging up the saddle and moving back home.
Now an emerging trainer of his own string, the one-time Lady Buttons-rider is hoping to make a splash from the picturesque beaches of Northumberland.
“The injuries had a massive part to play in it,” admits Nicol.
“I came back from so many of them and it wasn’t just the pain, it was just a case of mentally getting through it.
“Ruby Walsh always used to say that pain was only temporary, but what was harder was watching other lads riding the horses he should have been riding at say Cheltenham or Punchestown.
“That’s always the hardest part to take. It’s why us jockeys would always say, ‘oh no, we’re grand’, even when we weren’t.
“It’s a fickle old game and the longer you’re out, you’re soon forgotten. If you’re riding winners everyone wants to use you, but that can quickly change.”
Nicol has moved back to his roots, basing himself in the north-east, close to Bamburgh Beach – a tourist hotspot in normal times.
After 127 winners as a jockey, he called it a day last summer after one too many setbacks.
But thankfully life as a trainer has started smoothly and Nicol has already tasted success when Wise Eagle – just his third runner – won at Newcastle.
A small but select team of four horses already have Nicol at capacity, but he hopes to expand the family-run operation to eight in the near future.
Nicol said: “I’m absolutely loving it so far. It’s great to be back home.
“I left when I was 16 and I’m 31 now, and why I’d come home between riding if I was up north, this is different.
“It’s seven days a week and keeps me busy, and I know it’s early days and the honeymoon period, but I’m enjoying it.
“I’m based in Seahouses on the coast in Northumberland. And it’s amazing here, a great place to train.
“You’ve got great coastline. Bamburgh is one of the best coastal villages in the country and we use the beach to train the horses.
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“It couldn’t be more different from your likes of Newmarket with all the traffic and waiting to get on the gallops.”
Lady Buttons became a flagship horse for the north before her retirement last season, and Nicol as her regular partner felt the highs and lows along the way more than most.
He’d partner Phil Kirby’s star – nicknamed ‘The Queen of the North’ – on 12 of her 15 wins, but cruelly missed out on some of her biggest days through injury.
Nicol was forced to watch from the sidelines as she won a Grade 2 at Doncaster before also missing out on partnering her at the Festival that season.
He said: “To have found a horse like Lady Buttons is what all jockeys dream of. But I knew I’d be unlikely to reach those heights again.
“Every jockey wants to go out on their terms and the last thing you want is a career-ending injury.
“But nothing will ever beat Lady Buttons. The two wins that stand out were her Newbury win on Hennessy day.
“She never came off the bridle and she just cruised home. She jumped amazing and to go down there and take on the geldings down south on their patch, takes a bit of doing. There was a big crowd and the atmosphere was just brilliant.
“And the other one was when she won the Listed Hurdle at Wetherby the second time. I’d been out for ten months race-riding with a broken leg.
“I had a limp for months and months and couldn’t get rid of it. I was at Jack Berry House and they said it was one of the worst femur breaks they’d ever seen.
“That was the most emotional one, to go through all that and come back and win was fantastic.”
The racing industry is going through one of its toughest periods in modern times, owing largely to the COVID pandemic.
Behind closed doors racing, low prize money and increasing costs means life is tough for the majority of trainers.
But Nicol wasn’t put off joining the training ranks and looks to powerhouse Mark Johnston for inspiration.
He said: “Mark Johnston started off on the beach in his early days. He was down south and had about ten horses and now look at him!
“We don’t even have a walker here, we haven’t got our own gallop yet, but it just shows you there’s probably more than one way of skinning a cat.
“With a new business in any walk of life, people will always question whether it’ll be a success.
“You’ll get your critics like, ‘will he be able to train’. And to get that winner with my third runner puts us out there.”
Nicol’s clearly in no rush, but the early signs are positive.
After a luckless run of injuries, let’s hope life’s more of a beach.
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