Winning with cast offs


It’s 5.45am and the unmistakable smell of horse poo suggests White Star Stables is behind the hedge on Victoria Road in Cambridge.

The instructions were clear, first stables past the electric fence and there, down the back, owner Nicky Chilcott is cleaning out one of the night stables.

Standing guard: White Star Stables mascot with the distinctive orange and white colours Nicky Chilcott inherited from her father Graham. Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

She has been awake nearly two hours already – catching up on paperwork in her Clare Street home before heading down the road for the daily work out.

Chilcott, dubbed harness racing’s winningest woman, runs a multi-million dollar operation over the Cambridge Raceway fence and employs, at last count, about six staff “but we need more part timers if anyone wants to join a good, fun team!”

In any other business, they would call her a chief executive.

At 52 her body screams out for attention after years of accidents and falls. Her back is shot, and she says the first 30 minutes of each day are “not pretty.”

Two days after our interview she was thrown out of the sulky at Alexandra Park by a bad-tempered horse named Milly. She landed heavily on that dodgy back – but was in the cart for the next race 30 minutes later.

Nicky Chilcott early in the morning at White Star Stables with three-year-old filly Spice (KD Creation). Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

Chilcott was brought up in Morrinsville where her father Graham was a successful trainer. She did well at school and was accepted into medicine at Otago University, which she studied for two years before crossing over and doing physical education.

In her last year of the degree, she collapsed on the netball court with a brain injury and spent months in hospital. She lost her memory and went through rehabilitation before returning home to teach at Hamilton Girls High School.

In 1993, she had her first win as a driver at Alexandra Park in Auckland, guiding home Local Choice, trained by her father.

Four years later, she took over the stables and in November 1997, she had her first training success with Waharoa at Cambridge.

Thirty years on from that first win Chilcott – the first woman and only the 15th ever to train and drive 500 winners – still works seven days a week running her own business.

In the space of two hours, she rattles off the price of straps, feed, hay and medications; she pays all the bills herself.

Nicky Chilcott makes notes about one of the horses in the stables after a workout.

“$65 for that, can you believe it,” she says pointing to a velcro leg strap she is about to put on a horse’s lower leg.

Chilcott reached both 500 milestones in Auckland – the driving one behind Windinherhair in 2012 and the training one last year with Phoebe Majestic, which she also drove.

Her career stake earnings, at the end of last year, as a trainer were $4.363 million; as a driver $5.155 million.

She tends to get cast offs and average horses to her stables, and she is renowned at getting the best out of them for the owners who will not hear a bad word said about her.

Nicky Chilcott leads a workout on the Cambridge Raceway behind Bella (Ocean Belle) while in the trail is Ness Turan with Razoo (Brass Razoo), and outside is Gary Gillies with Sandy (Pukunui Beach). Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

A contact in the South Island often finds under-performing horses for her; some of which come north for a spot of Chilcott’s innovative training.

Her sole group one winner was Disprove, driven by David Butcher, in the 2001 Easter Cup at Addington.

“I got a phone call out of the blue from a guy in the South Island who said his horse had been naughty and he thought he might try a female trainer.

“I took him to the beach, he fitted into our routine.” But Disprove was a handful so Butcher drove him and “did a great job,” says Chilcott.

A driver gets $100 for each drive. Then if they secure a win or a place, it’s five per cent of the winnings and another 10 per cent for the trainer. The owner gets the rest.

Chilcott doesn’t go hunting drives now, she only drives those she trains. She also has stable foreman and junior driver Leah Hibell who has had success on Chilcott-trained horses, including her first on Del Shannon in October last year.

Junior driver and stable foreman Leah Hibell guides filly Furly (Under the Boardwalk) around the Cambridge Raceway track. Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

“I’ve had my trials and tribulations through the years,” Chilcott tells The News as she drives three horses back from their work out.

The worst came 10 years ago when she was depicted as a drugs cheat for importing a prohibited substance. It was a mistake – she was not importing the agricultural compound to cheat, just to save money. She was discharged without penalty and admits she lost some horses but found out who her real friends were. It is clear the experience still hurts though.

Chilcott hoses down Spice (KD Creation).

Nicky Chilcott washes down three-year-old Spice (KD Creation) after the filly’s workout. Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

“My horses are spoilt; this is hot water. It’s like World War 3 here if the water runs out, they’re not happy.”

Chilcott has never had children, the horses are her babies, and she frets about them.

“Sometimes I go home and lie in bed at night wondering about them.”

When we speak mid last month, she’d had a few sleepless nights about Milly (Sacred Mountain), then a five-year-old eight-time winner and former New Zealand record holder over 2200m for mares from a standing start. She came back from a spell, trained well, trialled “unreal” and then raced “terrible” at her first start back in November at Cambridge.

Two nights later Milly – a starter in the Thames Members Handicap Trot at Alexandra Park – was again on her worst behaviour and copped a warning for her barrier manner when she stood on the mark as the barriers were released.

The horse behind was unable to avoid her and both drivers were thrown from their sulkies. Chilcott was uninjured.

“She’s got me a bit baffled to be honest.”

And despite her bad behaviour, Chilcott did not give up on her attempts to solve the mystery of Milly.

On Christmas Eve at Cambridge Raceway, Sacred Mountain took out the Cambridge Xmas Handicap Trot by one and a quarter lengths in the hands of driver Andre Poutama.

See: Milly’s unwelcome ulcer.

And Chilcott had the best view finishing in fourth on KD Royalty.

In the lead up to the race, Matamata vet Barbara Hunter recommended ulcer medication and the trotter was a different horse.

Punters, keep your eye on Milly, because Chilcott does not give up on her horses.

That’s why they call her harness racing’s winningest woman.

Sacred Mountain and Andre Poutama have Cyclone Lucky Linda well covered as they race past to win on Christmas Eve. Photo: Angelique Bridson/Race Images.


About Author

Mary Anne Gill

Putāruru-born Mary Anne Gill is one of Waikato’s most experienced communications and public relations practitioners. She has won several national writing gongs including three times at the Qantas and twice at the Voyager media awards.