The damp of County Meath seems a long way from the sunshine of Melbourne, but to first season trainer Nick Cox it’s home from home.
Mind you, it’s very misleading to refer to this as his first season, since Nick already has more than 180 winners to his name, back in his native Australia. So what made him decide to make the former Mitchelstown Stud here in Ireland his new base for training?
“My wife Elaine is originally from Navan,” Nick explains, “we met while we were both working in Newmarket. After six or seven years in Australia, Elaine started to get a bit homesick.” With two sons aged two and three it seemed a good time to move back home, but it was as much consideration for his horses as for his family that made Nick opt for Ireland.
“It is such a calm environment over here,” Nick says, as we stand in the peaceful and secluded stable yard of the old stud. A traditional courtyard of twenty boxes, tucked neatly behind a second yard, it would be difficult to argue otherwise. There is no noise to betray that the gates open on to the main road from Trim to Athboy.
Nick is the ideal man to ask when it comes to finding the perfect locale for training racehorses. He has spent time with some of the most renowned names in international racing and has gained from their expertise. Most recently he has been working for Emerald Bloodstock in Kilcullen, County Kildare, for the past eighteen months. It provided him with the perfect introduction to the Irish racing community. One of the great assets he feels Ireland has to offer is the lack of time restraints placed upon horses, both on and off the track.
“The great Australian racecaller, Frank O’Brien, once said to me, ‘Nick, they don’t run horseraces in the morning’!” Nick explains. “We have our own gallops here and I can take the horses out any time that suits them. There are no time limits on the gallops. In Newmarket and Chantilly the horses have to be off the gallops very early to allow for maintenance; also America and Australia, where the horses are trained on the track.”
And it isn’t only in exercise that Nick can be allowed to make time work for him. “The Irish have a greater understanding of horses and a great love for the horse,” Nick says. “They are far more prepared to give a horse time. Trainers are not under constant pressure to produce results.”
But Nick can also see an opportunity to exploit that careful time taken with maturing horses. Even as he speaks there are hints that his juveniles are going to come out early with all guns blazing. As foreman to Lee Freedman and assistant trainer to Tony Vasil and Tony Newman in Australia, and Willie Jarvis in Newmarket, Nick is the man to ask when it comes to the secret of Australian horses’ international success. He clearly has a fair idea of what that might be, but he isn’t about to reveal any trade secrets just yet.
“Something that you often see elsewhere but we don’t seem to do in Australia is train to pedigree,” Nick says. “You might get an obvious sprinter on paper who actually turns out to be a twelve furlong horse. Lee Freedman will happily admit that he bought Sub Zero to be a two-year-old. He bought him to win a Golden Slipper, but instead he won the Melbourne Cup.”
Lee Freedman is just one of the great influences on Nick. While at boarding school, at fifteen, he was lucky enough to have Tony Newman as his teacher. “I’d always had an interest in racing,” Nick recalls, “and can remember sitting up in the middle of the night to watch the European Classic races on TV. So Tony and I pretty soon got to talking about horses and I’d go and work with him at weekends and school holidays.” Most Australians have a love of racing, cricket and Australian Rules football and Nick was no exception, getting distracted from horses for a while and playing Aussie Rules professionally for three years with Carlton. “Then I went back to Tony full time. I learned so much from him.” Stints with Tony Vasil and Lee Freedman were followed by three years in Newmarket with Willie Jarvis, before returning to Australia and taking out a licence in 2000. So, what one secret has he picked up that he’s prepared to share?
“If I have to say one thing that gives a horse the edge, it would have to be education,” Nick reveals. “I think education is vital for young horses. A well educated horse will very often beat a horse of better ability but less experience. In Australia they’re trained on the racecourse. It’s good for them to see that environment, the rails, the people, the noise. They have organised trials – to all intents and purposes proper races. It gives them so much experience, which is invaluable. Over here they don’t encounter anything like that until their first race. In Newmarket, with such a large concentration of racehorses and the whole layout, it’s a little more structured, but still not quite like the racecourse. ”
Not surprisingly, if there was just one thing Nick could introduce from Australia it would be public trials, where at Cranburn, for example, 450 horses raced over a period of two days. He sees Dundalk as the perfect opportunity for such an introduction and would also like to see winter racing on the All-Weather. “It would take the pressure off the racetracks,” he points out, “and give trainers a chance to start running horses in January to get them fit. I think it would help to cut down on a lot of injuries, too. Horses pick up more injuries on the gallops than on the racecourse.”
Whatever Nick manages to introduce from Australia, it certainly won’t be the weather. But at least the forecast looks good for a bright start to the European career of Nick Cox.