2023 Country Achiever Award goes to Wayne Nichols

14 June 2023 Written by VRC

Wayne Nichols isn’t someone who likes a fuss made of him, but as the latest recipient of the 2023 Country Achiever Award, the Benalla trainer might have to get used to the limelight.

The Country Achiever Award recognises the career and broader industry contribution of a country-based trainer. The Australian Trainers’ Association (ATA) in conjunction with Country Racing Victoria (CRV) and the Victoria Racing Club (VRC), decided that this year’s worthy recipient was Wayne Nichols of Benalla, in north-east Victoria.

Although he is a man now devoted to country racing and country life, Nichols grew up in Dandenong and relocated from the city in his late teens.

Before competition on the racetrack grabbed hold of him, the trainer was passionate about another type of racing – he was a champion water skier who won 10 Victorian state titles and a national title. He also represented his country internationally, including at events held in California, New Zealand and London between the ages of 16 and 28.

Following his retirement from water skiing, Nichols began to work alongside his father, Ted, on their farm in Bundalong, outside of Yarrawonga. Ted had his owner/trainer licence and Nichols decided to take up a stable hand licence. This gave him a taste of thoroughbreds and the racing scene and so, after two years with his father, Nichols applied for his own trainer licence in 1983. He gathered a small team of thoroughbreds and divided his time training at the farm and Wangaratta racecourse. A mare named Spring Pleasure provided the new trainer with a winning debut at Seymour, which was followed up with another win at Sandown shortly after. “I thought, this is a pretty easy caper!” said Nichols.

Nichols moved to Benalla in 1985 where he purchased a farm and stable complex directly opposite the racecourse. In 1999 the operation moved to Spring Lodge at Goorambat, where they are still situated.

Nichols can boast many achievements during his time in Benalla, with four Benalla trainer premierships, a North-east trainer premiership, and two North-east Horse of the Year awards. 

Nichols has enjoyed success with many horses over the years, with the most notable being Simple As That (15 wins), Destry Girl (11 wins) and Devil May Care (5 wins), which all won at Listed and Listed/Group 3 level.

Twenty-five years on, the legacy of that first winner, Spring Pleasure, shaped Nichols's career. Stable star, Diplomatic Force is a grandson whilst many of Spring Pleasure’s other descendants have been winners on the track under the careful guidance of Nichols.

Diplomatic Force, bred at Spring Lodge, raced in Victoria, Queensland, and South Australia in the early 1990s, placing multiple times at Listed and Group 3 levels, winning a Group 2 (Yallambee Stakes) and Group 3 (RN Irwin Stakes), and placing in a Group 1 (The Goodwood). Overall, the gelding won seven races and placed ten times, earning total prizemoney across his career of $622,000.

“He was a lovely horse and a good story. One of my very best friends who I coached in water skiing rang me up and told me he’d bought a share in a horse … He sent it over to have it broken in and he was a beautiful horse. Half a dozen people put $200 in and he was sort of syndicated, for want of another word in those days, for a total of $1200. He ended up winning $300,000 and 15 races in the early 90s.”

Retired earlier than the team would have liked due to soundness issues and heat stress, the now 18-year-old Diplomatic Force, who Nichols describes as “a beautiful, quiet animal” spends his retirement at Nichols’ property “wandering around the paddock”.

Nichols doesn’t only have a way with horses but is also a renowned industry mentor and educator.

Some of the track riders that got their start with Nichols have become trainers themselves, such as Peter Robl, Dwayne Reid and Nathan Newton. 

He has also had a string of apprentices who have made him proud. Peter Robl, Travis Creek, Jess Payne, Amanda Masters, Todd Rawiller and Simon Miller are included in this group.

“When you see them have some success and you’ve maybe had some small part of it, it’s satisfying.”

He has currently taken apprentice Hannah Le Blanc under his wing. “It’s a slow process sometimes for the kids to get acceptance and they’ve got to get the lucky breaks at certain times. Things fall in their lap and if they happen to find the right horse at the right time it can kickstart their career enormously. Otherwise, they’ve got to keep working their way at it.” 

Although he has trained 277 winners with prizemoney of just under $4 million, a humble Nichols also credits his wife Jules with his success. “She’s the backbone behind the joint these days. She kicks me out of bed every morning and does so much work around the place. She’s invaluable and she gets a thrill out of it.”

He is also glowing in his praise for country racing. “We are given lots of options in the northeast of Victoria. We can race in the country here and we can go to Melbourne when we get horses good enough to go there, and it’s not hard to flip over the border and go to the Riverina. Corowa, Albury, Wagga .. places like that. So this area’s a really good location for training horses.”

He believes that country racing is vital to the industry. “The more country racing you get, the more people are exposed to the sport. The little country cups get a huge population of non-racing people there on a given race day, so you’re promoting the sport to people who wouldn’t normally see it.”

He may have spent his childhood in the city, but you won’t find Nichols heading back any time soon. “The lack of the rat race and the slower, more relaxing atmosphere of the country is just better.”

He made an exception for VRC Country Race Day on 17 June, however,  and will be visiting Flemington to accept his well-deserved award and enjoy watching a race named in his honour. “I prefer to stay a bit under the radar and I like my quiet life, but it is nice to be recognised for some of the things you’ve done. It gives you a bit of a glow.”