Could it be a fluke? If so, what Nick and Jane Williams have put together down at Great Nympton near Exmoor is certainly one of the oddest, jolliest, most back to basics, and most thoughtful flukes that the game has ever seen.
Odd, because Nick and Jane have so splendidly fractious a relationship that one wall still has the only partially obscured words “Nick, You Are A Bastard” spray painted across it. Jolly, because 53 year old Nick is incapable of completing three sentences without seeing the funny side. Back-to-basics because every horse goes out in the field every afternoon, and thoughtful because accountant Nick can rattle off figures to challenge any trainer in the country – he currently stands 11th in the table having run just 24 individual horses this season, the ten above him have campaigned at least 120 horses, the one below 151.
When we arrived on Thursday morning six of the horses were saddled up and tethered to the stable fence for all the world as if this were a trekking centre – which once we are walking through the village and wandering off into the achingly beautiful Devon countryside doesn’t seem too far from the truth. Except that the horse Nick is riding at the front is Diamond Harry, chief of the stable’s 8 runners at the Cheltenham Festival, and even the thing I am on, the immaculately behaved Alfie Spinner, is set to contest the EBF Final at Sandown having come good in both his last two races.
That Nick Williams should emerge as a major racing player has amazed many people, and most of all himself. “I had absolutely no racing background,” he remembers happily, “I was brought up in St John’s Wood and my only connection was getting the bus to Cheltenham from the school to which I was sent near Stroud and walking up to the racecourse and finding someone to take me in with them.”
Something must have stuck of that early experience because at 18 the entirely untrained Williams joined the desperate duo of Willie Musson and Mark Tompkins in what must have been a fairly chaotic establishment at Bramley in Surrey. “Nick was wonderful,” chuckled Tompkins on Friday, “he couldn’t ride and didn’t really know a thing about racing but he always had his head in the formbook and was always coming up with ideas to earn a few quid – he even got one job dressed in a hooped shirt and a French beret to help sell Oxo onion cubes in a supermarket.”
In fact the role was much closer to reality than Tompkins or the rest of us would realise. For Nick is actually the son of a French accountant who had a passing romance with his mother and beetled off to Paris way before the birth and it was only when his loving step father came on the scene a couple of years later that Nick took on Williams as his surname. It’s a revelation which doesn’t entirely shock because there is something more Boulevard than Barnstable about the way Nick flits from subject to subject, apparently always engaged and amused by the challenge of them all.
He has needed all that nimbleness over the years. First to get through the long haul of accountancy exams down in Exeter before setting up with his first wife Sarah and acting as her assistant trainer whilst building his own practice. But most of all in the seven years since he and Jane began to transform crumble-down Culverhill Farm into a viable operation. That they have done this whilst continuing as working partners in their accountancy business in nearby South Molton not to mention bringing up their own two young children and Jane’s now 16 year old point-to-pointing daughter is little short of astonishing – especially when Nick was entirely incapacitated a season ago with a broken leg.
“We have developed our own system,” says Nick as we finally come out of the lane to tackle the five uphill woodchip furlongs which are the basic workbench around which he builds the fitness of his horses. “Jane has had ponies and pointers around Exmoor all her life so most of the horse side was down to her, whilst I have always loved poring over pedigrees and the programme book.”
Beneath him the finest product of that system is so fresh and bold that when we reach the top the trainer is stressed enough to draw a joshing “told you he was getting strong” from assistant Joe Tickle whose 6 foot 2 inch frame was bent around the neat striding form of Grand National hope Maljimar and was booked for five rides at Ottery St Mary yesterday. Diamond Harry’s racecourse development, 9 wins from 11 races to put him as a major contender for the RSA Chase at Cheltenham, is matched by his increase in value from the 11,000gns that Williams paid for him as an unraced three year old to what must be almost fifty times that reckoning today. It is not something an accountant is likely to miss.
“I think we give better value than any other trainer,” says Nick as we round the barns ready to embark on another blast up the bank, “especially with the French horses. The idea is to buy them as yearlings, break them and train them in our system as two and three year olds and then run them as four year olds. You have added some twenty thousand to your bill but you have got a horse whose talent has been developed correctly.”
Amongst the Cheltenham entries are Reve de Sivola who cost just 6,000 Euros at Deauville and will carry stable jockey Daryl Jacob with a major chance in the Neptune Investment Hurdle, whilst the 20,000 Euros it took to buy the giant Me Voici three years ago looks peanuts compared to what his last two victories have promised and might soon deliver if heavy ground allows him to contest The Triumph Hurdle on March 19th. And all that does not mention Pistolet Noir, bought for 11,000 Euros and, after an impressive opening victory, sold for an extremely handsome profit to the Paul Nicholls team albeit somewhat against the wishes of the owner’s husband and business and training partner Nick Williams.
Whatever disagreements exist on that front, there is nothing but unanimity in the method they have evolved to bring their athletes forward. When an operation like the Williamses starts to clock up such startling results it suggests they are doing something different and even one morning at Culverhill Farm and just three trips up that hill confirms that this to be the case.
Not just in the young stock buying policy, but in the determindly naturalistic approach they take overall. Just as the ground on which Nick rears his Herefords and grows his hay is organically free of artificial fertilizer, so no bloods are tested, no weights taken, no throats scoped, and no vets called unless in emergency. Other trainers, notably Venetia Williams, may turn horses out every afternoon, but none known to me still insist on a twenty minute full “strapping” (grooming body massage) not just every day but at the track before every race, and that only after a twenty minute walk once the animal has stepped off the lorry.
These are old fashioned virtues adapted to newly acquired knowledge and whilst most trainers now accept the importance of ventilation in stable blocks few take it to the extremes encountered down at George Nympton. Not only do all the standard boxes have top doors back and front but Me Voici and a dozen of his stablemates are housed in pens sixteen metres by five under a roofed but only two two sided barn. “ They do wear extra coats in the snow,” explained Nick Williams, “they keep warm but above all they stay healthy.”
Of course all trainers with a fresh stream of winners behind them make a convincing case but there is something in the engaging, almost “racing innocence” of Nick Williams that suggests you don’t dismiss his claims too quickly. In a very different way from the young Martin Pipe, he and his wife have put together their own operation without the benefit of what is usually considered a “proper” racing education. “It can be a bit of a circus here sometimes,” Joe Tickle had confided when we were trotting down the lanes, “but we do our own thing. Jane takes a lot of them hunting, we go off around these roads two or three times a week, we get them out every day including Sundays. They tend to keep very sweet with us. We treat them as real horses and the fact is that of 25 horses we have only had one out injured for the season. How many stables can say that ?”
The system has already had success with cast offs from larger and inevitably more regimented operations – most notably when the ex-Paul Nicholls L’Aventure won the Border National up at Kelso last December. But yesterday’s Eider Chase at Newcastle was the latest and greatest challenge when the talented Dom D’Orgeval was due to have his first run back for the Williams team after losing his way with David Pipe to whom he had been transferred from Great Nympton two seasons ago.
“Horses are funny things and he didn’t seem happy when he first arrived,” said Nick Williams as head girl Jenny Condon completed Dom D’Orgeval’s pre-race shampoo revealing a coat as sleek and muscular as a seal in water. “But we have done a lot of different things with him, he has been all over Exmoor and although I am still worried that he may be a little heav, I think he could be a contender.”
Whatever happens to Dom D’Orgeval, his trainer knows that the real measurement of success is how he fares at the big meetings and he has a beguiling mix of confidence seasoned with realism. James de Vasssy would have a fighting chance in the Coral Cup, George Nympton (the horse) would be a decent outsider in the Fred Winter as Cornas would be in the Grand Annual and whilst Me Voici would only run in The Triumph if the ground was very soft (“I really see him as a Gold Cup horse”) Reve De Sivola and Diamond Harry carry high hopes in the “Neptune” and the “RSA”.
“I think Reve de Sivola will beat all the English horses,” says Nick matter of factly as we gathered for lunch just past the sheep market in South Molton, “but I just don’t know how we will handle Rite of Passage. As for Diamond Harry, I just hope he jumps straight the way he did at Haydock for Barry Geraghty not diving out to the right as he did with Timmy Murphy at Newbury. It’s odd because he always schooled perfectly at home but he went out to the right over hurdles too. He would not want to do it at Cheltenham but after riding him today for the first time in weeks I can promise you he is really well again.”
Standing by the horse an hour earlier was to appreciate how difficult it must be to keep condition on so lean and racy a frame. Diamond Harry stands all of 17 hands at his tall and narrow withers and the long levers of his quarters carry little weight on them. “I think I may have taken him to Cheltenham just a shade overcooked last year,” says Nick, “this time he seems right. We just have to hope about his jumping.”
Sitting opposite the man was to register just how much success can breed ambition. “No one knew what he was going to do,” says Mark Tompkins of his former Onion selling friend, “but he was so determined to get on and do something that virtually nothing would surprise me. Although, considering how little he knew about horses then, I suppose this racing stuff does a bit.”
Nick Williams is having none of it although, not for the first time, there does not appear to be total agreement at home. “Jane wants to keep things in perspective, keep on the accountancy and not take on any more horses. She does not want that level of ambition and wants to be sure there is time for the children. But I want to go for it. I don’t want to turn people away. We are just outside the top ten at the moment, I reckon we could be champion trainer with just ten more horses.”
It is such a breathtaking statement that you check the wine bottle hasn’t been emptied. But Nick Williams is more than half serious. “You don’t need lots of horses,” he says, “only good ones. If our system can work we don’t waste our time chasing around with the bad ones. After all if you win the Champion Hurdle, The Gold Cup and the Grand National – that’s Me Voici, Diamond Harry and Maljimar next season – you are bound to be in the top three.”