TRAINER TALK: FRANCESCA NIMMO

by JAKE EXELBY

‘BREAKING INTO THE BIG TIME’

Francesca Nimmo may still be in her twenties, but she already proved herself an astute young trainer, more than capable of getting a horse ready to win first time, as last season’s Brocklesby Park winner Fortunata Fashions - subsequently sold for £55,000 – showed. Francesca, whose boyfriend is National Hunt jockey Charlie Poste, is now hoping to continue to increase the numbers and the quality within her stable. I visit her at her Ettington yard to find out more about her string and her hopes for this year.

When I arrive, the yard has a real buzz to it. Seven horses and their riders are being saddled, about to go out to the gallops for second lot. Francesca and Charlie only moved to their Station Yard stables, on pointing stalwart Ken Hutsby’s land, in September, from Aston Le Walls near Northampton. “We only had seven or eight last year, plus some babies and horses for breaking-in,” said Francesca when asked about the relocation. “We were looking for somewhere with more facilities – what we had was incredibly limited compared to what we’ve got here.”

What she has at Station Yard is more than 20 boxes, as well as access to the same gallops used by nearby trainer Fred Hutsby, Ken’s son. “Our aim was to fill just half the barn, but we now have 23 in with hopefully around 15 to run,” confirmed Francesca. Familiar faces include Clondaw Island, a mightily impressive winner at Kingston Blount in 2014 but unraced since – “We may aim him at the Cheltenham two-mile Hunter Chase. He’s been leased to a syndicate for the season and we still do have a few spaces available” – and Magic Sky, the mention of whom lights up Francesca’s face. “He’s 16, but still madly enthusiastic,” the trainer smiled when talking about the horse who has carried her to four victories in Ladies Opens. “He still runs away with me every morning, and is normally left for Charlie to school!  I hope to ride him again this season, but he has legs like glass.  Hunting him is fairly challenging – he just loves being a racehorse.”

As well as her four wins between the flags from just 11 rides, Francesca has a 50% strike rate under Rules, having won a Hurdle on the Robin Dickin-trained Galactic Power at Huntingdon last season. “I was completely outpaced jumping the first three,” she recalled. “But Charlie had told me to watch where Gina Andrews and Lizzie Kelly were – they were upsides so I hoped I wasn’t too far wrong! In the end he bolted up at 18/1.”

I asked Francesca why, with such a great win ratio, she hasn’t been tempted to ride more regularly. “I didn’t want the pressure of riding anything else, she admitted. “Plus Dad and Charlie weren't overly keen on me riding maidens, which we mainly had previously, and in all honesty you can't do everything. Although I have ridden more winners on Magic Sky than Charlie did, even if – as he always says – he did win more prize money!” (Note to readers: Charlie rode Magic Sky to victory back in 2007!)

“Dad” is Chris Nimmo, a key part of the team, who rides out five mornings a week. Chris is a former trainer of pointers himself and is well known for his tilts at the ring, most recently with Fortunata Fashions at Brocklesby Park last season and most famously when Over The Hill won a Cartmel Hunter Chase in 1999. “Cartmel is Dad’s favourite course,” laughed Francesca. “He won that race with Sands Of Gold as well. The trophy’s really incredible – it’s enormous, and an added bonus is that you win lots of sticky toffee pudding!” It was on Sands Of Gold that Francesca first caught the riding and training bug. “Dad used to let me ride him out when I was 11 or 12, but he was never overly keen for me to ride when I turned 16 as I was small. I always thought I wanted to train and, while I went to the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, I spent most of my time hunting and playing polo. I rode in several hunt races, most memorably winning a Golden Button and finishing fourth in a side-saddle race.”

Francesca’s horses for this season are a mix of older and younger horses, with the plan being to bring on the young ones and sell them on – “Last season was a huge success (with Fortunata Fashions) but it's not always that straightforward…” A youngster she is particularly keen on is an as yet unnamed four-year-old by Scorpion. Hugh Nugent, who will take most of the rides this season, partners him as he canters with six others along the uphill all-weather gallop and – at nearly 17 hands – he’s certainly an imposing individual.

Others to watch out for include Lisnagar Star – “Dad’s incredibly fond of him, he says he hasn’t liked one so much for years” – who will be aimed at Restricteds with James Jackson-Stops and Alittlebitless. “He’s made a slow start to the season, falling when favourite at Cottenham on the first day of the season and not handling the heavy ground at all at Chaddesley Corbett, but we’re confident he will show his true colours on better ground.”

An expanding string needs a good team and the camaraderie in the yard is obvious, with coffee and bacon sandwiches freely dispensed. As Francesca confesses, “It’s meant to be fun. Mum plays a key part in producing wonderful race day picnics and, on a Saturday morning over coffee, the barn can often sound more like a pub than a racing yard!"  An invaluable member of the team is Kerry Moore who is Head Girl, having joined in September when Francesca and Charlie moved to Ettington, and voluntarily sticks to stable duties while the others are riding out – “Having children put me off riding. I don’t mind if Francesca needs me, but it’s not my first port of call!” The work riders – on my visit at least – are completed by Fluffy Cain, who had five rides and two placings in points last year, Luke Scott, “the next champion jockey” according to Francesca, who at 13 has already ridden a pony racing winner, and Kate Maplethorpe, who has also progressed through pony racing.  "We enjoy having the younger members of the team in and it's great to be able to give them the opportunity to learn"

Francesca is positive about the future of the sport, in particular the introduction of two-and-a-half mile races. “While we’ve been slow to get going compared to Irish points, and also to have UK pointing form recognised by National Hunt trainers,everything seems to be moving with the times. Change is a good thing, as you’ve got to keep looking for ways to continueimproving.” A clear statement of intent from a young trainer destined for the top.

Francesca Nimmo’s Owner-Riders

With the sport of pointing becoming increasingly professional, it is pleasing to see that the spirit of the ‘Corinthian’ owner-rider lives on - as Francesca confirmed, “We actively encourage owner-riders. Pointing is getting more professional, but it’s still an amateur sport. While you can’t send out unschooled maidens for inexperienced riders, it can still be professional with owner-riders. We’ve got an Equicizer (mechanical horse) in the yard and Charlie can offer a lot of help with schooling, technique and race tactics.”

I talked to four owners, from very different backgrounds, who have their horses with Francesca Nimmo, to see what makes them tick.

James Jackson-Stops

Property developer James is the most experienced of Francesca’s owner-riders, having ridden four winners from about 60 rides, most notably on Gidam Gidam in the Lord Ashton of Hyde’s Cup in 2013. This year, he and his family bought Aintree Foxhunters third Last Time D’Albain, hoping to target a Cheltenham and Aintree double in 2016. However, after a promising second at Cottenham, the plans fell through for the most tragic of reasons, as ‘Alby’ had to be put down after breaking a fetlock.

“This season so far has been a tough one,” admitted James. “You start with so much hope and inflate your bubbles with ambition. Then, when they burst, it’s hard.” James originally had four horses to ride this year – Chardonnay and Jakros with Simon Gilmore as well as Lisnagar Star and Last Time D’Albain – but he’s now unsure what 2016 holds following the latest in a series of setbacks. “I started with the strongest team I’ve ever had and now I’m effectively down to one. But I’m trying to look on the bright side, keep soldiering on and get stuck into work.” No sooner had he said these words than James partnered Jakros to win at Milborne St Andrew, so let’s hope his luck continues to change for the better.

Dave Tompkins

Dave, 48, started riding just three years ago, has had one ride in point-to-points and has also completed the Newmarket Town Plate, a flat race over four miles, twice. I asked him how he caught the racing bug at a relatively advanced age. “As a kid, I wanted to be a jockey. I wanted to experience what it was like to go over fences and it never left me. I lost my father when I was 18 and worked on the family farm – I had no time or money! Then in 1998, I set up my own business – Lighthorne Lamb – selling meat to restaurants and hotels. When I sold the company, I was in a position to have my own horses. And I’ll never forget the adrenalin the first time I schooled a horse over fences.”

This year, Dave has two horses with Francesca – the ex-Paul Webber trained Royalracket and Champagne Rian, who came from Rebecca Curtis – and has already ridden the former twice, finishing fourth at Chaddesley Corbett and fifth at Cocklebarrow. He’s well prepared for the challenge. “I go to the gym, I’ve got a personal trainer and I use Fran and Charlie’s Equicizer,” he confirmed. And his goal for the year? “To ride a winner!”

Carrie Tucker

Carrie, who works as a Chief Financial Officer in London, is also a former British champion mogul skier! She is looking forward to her first rides this season on Right Enough, a three-time winner, most recently when trained by Robert Chanin in Devon. She tells me how her new career came about. “I’m a ‘local lass’ and I was at Mollington last year when I suddenly thought “Why have I never done this?” Francesca and another friend agreed that they had found a suitable mount – the only problem was that Carrie was in Bolivia at the time! “So we met on an industrial estate near the M5 – that’s when I first saw the horse!” Asked about her ambitions for the season, Carrie simply replied “I’d like to survive my Members race.”

Annabel Willis

Annabel is just 16 and comes to pointing from the proving ground of pony racing. Her hopes will be carried by My Minds Maid, ex-Jack Barber and who also helped educate last year’s Ladies Novice Champion Lara Mahon. A good omen perhaps? Unlike many graduates of pony racing, Annabel did not grow up with horses. “I only learnt to ride when I was 12 and I got sponsorship for a pony racing scheme at 13,”she recalled. “Then at 14 I started a Saturday job with Ben Case. I always wanted to have a go at pointing, but I didn’t have the money or the background. So I got in touch with Francesca and that’s how Marge (My Minds Maid) came about.”

“I’m studying at Moreton Morrell College (just up the road) so I come and ride out here every day – it helps pay for Marge!” continues Annabel, mature beyond her years. I ask her what she has learnt from the pony racing circuit. “It gives you the confidence to go pointing, and teaches you racing etiquette.” She had her first ride at Cocklebarrow last month – while My Minds Maid was eventually pulled up – her rider loved the experience.

After her ride, Annabel told me “It was amazing that a dream I never thought would come true was really happening! She jumped like the old pro she is and gave me a great spin. It was a fantastic experience and I’m looking towards my next ride.” And she made sure it was not just My Minds Maid who got the credit. “Without Francesca and her team I wouldn't have been in the paddock Sunday so I'm truly grateful to them too!”