Check out the list of winners trained by Nicky Chilcott at White Star Stables at Cambridge Raceway and you won’t find many headlining Group One horses.
But what you will discover is a host of cast-offs and average animals who, with countless hours of hard work, have enriched the lives of so many Ma and Pa Kiwi owners.
When Nicky notched her 500th training win tonight at Alexandra Park, driving Phoebe Majestic to an all-the-way win, she became the first solo woman to train 500 winners in New Zealand and the first woman to do the training and driving 500 double.
But it wasn’t without its drama after a nail-biting wait for a stewards inquiry to determine whether Phoebe Majestic had started from the correct unruly position.
It was a fitting moment for many of Nicky’s long time owners including her mother Lyn, Norm Champion, Christine Gillanders, Lenny Burrows, Kevin Orr, Roger McGlade, HRNZ chairman John Coulam, Gary Williams, Jaron Chamberlain and Jo Turan.
Unlike most of the 14 other harness icons who have achieved the double 500 feat, Nicky hasn’t had horses queued up waiting to come in the gate, seldom training more than 15 to 20 at a time.
And she hasn’t had wealthy owners on tap, always with plenty of spare cash to spend up large at the yearling sales.
When she started training in 1997, her entire team was made up of cast-offs, problem horses who had frustrated their previous trainers to the point of being shown the door.
“I couldn’t name one I got from the get-go,” Nicky said. “And the more I developed a reputation for turning around horses who were going no good, the more I was offered.
“You put in a lot of hard yards mucking around with them but getting those types to win races gives you a real sense of pride and achievement. And nothing beats the thrill of seeing owners winning with those horses and that’s what keeps you going.”
Nicky’s sole Group One winner Disprove was a cast-off from Peter Jones’ Canterbury stable, winning his first four races on end in 1999 thanks to her innovative training.
“He did a majority of his work under saddle or at the beach.
“I remember when we took him down for the Easter Cup we had a terrible trip, we were on the road for three days, sitting on the wharf for hours when the ferry was cancelled.
“I stayed at Colin and Julie de Filippi’s place and I remember Colin’s surprise when I told him I wasn’t going to work the horse before the race.
“There was little ol’ me, who knew nothing, telling an icon like Colin de Filippi that all I intended doing was riding him. I didn’t put him in the cart for more than a week before the race.
“He was a brilliant beginner but he missed away, settled back, looped them to sit parked, got cover and bolted in.”
Her 1999 Wellington Cup winner Shredder was another who seldom went in the cart between races.
“I worked really hard on him. I used to work him on the beach and ride him up Ken Browne’s hill.
“We targetted the cup a long way out and I had him as good as ever on the day. When things go to plan like that it’s a real buzz.”
Nicky’s first real boost came when respected form anaylst Phill Barber started sourcing under-performing horses for her from the South Island.
“Tabell was one we got up from the south. He had a lot speed but also a lot of niggles.”
Shredder and Tabell were the first two horses she trained for syndicates including her lifelong friend Cliff “No.1” Thomas, who died in March with an incredible 96 wins in White Star’s colours.
Nicky’s raised profile saw her pick up more clients who have remained loyal for decades, like Taranaki couple Alan and Lyn Messenger who approached her out of the blue asking her to train for them.
Their roll started with six race winners like Devine Temptation and Attsa Nice and, more recently Princess Kate (8 wins). In 22 years with Nicky their tally has now reached 35 wins.
But many of her other owners, including the team who race the Tomado horses, came through the reject route.
“Waingaro Lassie was a really difficult mare I got from Robert Mitchell. I rode her and managed to change her mental attitude and she ended up winning six races.”
At stud Waingaro Lassie and her daughters produced six other winners for Nicky including grass track specialist President Tomado (eight wins).
Many of her other best performers were never fan favourites, horses like Leroy Brogden who racked up nine wins.
“He wasn’t that good, we just used the drop back system to race in the same grade and in claimers. The owners had a ball.”
Nicky is steeled to the prospect of going for months without training a winner.
“We all know racing is a numbers game and when you’ve got only a small team you can have good runs and bad runs but not because you’re doing anything wrong.
“I’ve actually got 29 in work now, which is the most I’ve ever had in my life, but I prefer small numbers.
“To me, training is about treating every horse as an individual and with smaller numbers you can do that.
“Some take a lot of work, some none. When I got Landora’s Image to train I backed right off her, rode her, walked her through supermarket car parks to quieten her down, and she won five races in four months.
“When you have fewer horses you can keep an eye on them every day, sit behind them two or three times a week and really get to know them, when they’re feeling well or developing niggly complaints.
“I’ll often work horses without a set plan and work them on how they feel, that’s difficult to teach. Everyone can go out and run say 3:20 but it’s about how the horses do it, that’s way more important in training.
“I always say don’t worry about your watch, tell me what you’re feeling. Arna Donnelly was very good at that when she worked for me, that’s why she’s a good trainer.”
In recent months Nicky has cut back on race driving, her body so beaten up by decades of crashes and wear and tear.
“I don’t take outside drives any more. I don’t even drive all my own, my body can’t deal with that.”
When the alarm goes at 4am, Nicky says she has to do stretches before she can even walk properly.
Nicky says she’ll struggle mentally too when she can’t drive on raceday but “the day I can’t drive trackwork is the day I give up.
“Luckily I’ve got the best staff I’ve had in a long time. Staff is a big problem for everyone, the last couple of years it’s been a nightmare getting people who can drive.
“I’ve had to be there every minute of the day. You can’t put a price on having good staff.”
Nicky knows the goals she sets herself now have to be achievable.
“Some days I wake up and think I’m close to retirement but hopefully my body can hang on a few more years. I really want to get 700 driving wins.”
With 669 wins, Nicky is still the country’s most successful female driver, though Samantha Ottley is closing in fast on 622.
Having driven mostly for owner-trainers, and no big stables like Ottley, Nicky is immensely proud of her total in the cart.
But she’s most excited about the depth of young talent in her team.
“Having so many young horses is exciting. I’ve never had so many yearlings and two-year-olds before. They’re not good yet but they’re also not no good.”
Nicky is hoping It’s Nae Or Never, the first foal out of her fast filly Juice Brogden, turns out to be good.
“Whenever I’ve gone to the sales I’ve never had a budget of more than $15,000 but this year we got a big group together and went to $75,000 for her.
“I’d also like to train and drive a Group One winner. Fingers crossed KD Royalty can do it in the Trotting Oaks. She’s exceptionally good but she’s in a year with a very good crop of three-year-old fillies.
“I’d also really like to win a good race with Blazing Louie, that would be very special. Cliff had some really nice horses but I thought Blaze could be the best he had. He named the horse and it’s a shame he never got to see him race.” - Barry Lichter
THE DOUBLE 500 CLUB
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