Spend some time with Pukekohe trainer Nigel Tiley and there are two things that strike you about the man who has spent most of his life in the company of the thoroughbred.
One is his absolute love and respect for the horses he works with and the other is his impish sense of humour. It was that engaging manner, coupled with a good deal of boyish bravado, that set him on his path in the racing game as a 10-year-old shortly after emigrating to New Zealand from England with his mother and sister following the dissolution of his parents’ marriage.
The young Tiley landed in Takanini in Auckland, an important hub in the local thoroughbred training industry. Enrolled at Takanini Primary School, Tiley became friends with the offspring of local racing identities at the time and his interest in the sport commenced.
“Most of my mates were the sons of trainers as there was a strong racing influence at the school,” he said.
“I went there with the Hillis, Cooksley and Campbell kids amongst others and started hanging around the stables and going to the races with a mate on a horse truck.”
As luck would have it the Tiley family lived two doors down from trainer Alf Cole and it was he who gave the youngster his first job in the industry. It began an association with the Cole family that continues to the present day.
“I used to go and stand at the top of Alf Cole’s driveway and look at the horses,” recalled Tiley.
“A friend of mine said Alf had bought two circus ponies for his grandkids and was looking for someone to ride them. I went and knocked on Alf’s door and told him I could ride.
“I’d never ridden a horse in my life, which Alf worked out pretty quickly, but from there I started working in Alf’s stable after school and then I’d go and ride the ponies.”
Although a good scholar, a combination of falling grades due to his stable work and a passion for riding, saw Tiley leave school shortly before his 15thbirthday to start his apprenticeship with Cole.
“My headmaster knew my heart wasn’t in my school work and that I worked in the stables, so he politely suggested it might be best if I left and pursued a career in racing,” he said.
Tiley completed a successful apprenticeship with more than 90 winning rides, a number of those coming for leading trainers such as Laurie Laxon.
“Most of my rides were spread amongst a number of trainers but the one who utilised me the most was Laurie Laxon,” Tiley said.
“I rode a lot of winners for Laurie who was based at Te Rapa before moving to Cambridge.
“I rode the winner of the Great Northern Foal Stakes for Alf and also won a number of good races on a good mare called Voliz.”
Opportunity knocked for Tiley shortly after completing his apprenticeship when he spent three months with prominent Sydney trainer Paul Sutherland.
“I was put in contact with Paul Sutherland by a bloke called Dudley Vincent who I had ridden a number of winners for, including Babbling Brooke,” Tiley said.
“I rode about a dozen winners for Paul and he wanted me to stay on but I didn’t think I was quite ready for it.
“In the back of my mind I thought I needed another couple of years in New Zealand as they are pretty brutal on you over there if you make too many mistakes.”
Tiley returned to New Zealand and started riding work for Takanini supremo Ray Verner, who mainly used the services of New Zealand’s leading rider, David Peake.
“Ray said to me he couldn’t promise me his best rides but he could put me on the second best which didn’t have a lot of difference between them and the top mounts,” he said.
“I freelanced out of Takanini and rode work for Ray and then later in the morning for a number of the other trainers.”
During this period Tiley’s undeniable riding talent shone through as he booted home numerous major race winner’s including the 1980 Gr.1 New Zealand Derby (2400m) on the Neville Atkins-trained Ring The Bell.
“My association with Ring The Bell stands out for me as I won the Derby on him and also went to England and France with him and rode him in the Arc de Triomphe,” he said.
“He was a fantastic three-year-old and won the Canterbury Guineas, the Tulloch Stakes and finished second in the AJC Derby.”
Tiley numbers in excess of 20 Group One wins in New Zealand as a jockey and double that if you include the equivalent races he won in both Singapore and Hong Kong during lengthy riding stints in both jurisdictions.
The opportunity to ride in Singapore came through misfortune for another Kiwi rider, Brian York.
“Yorkie copped a three-month suspension when he was riding for the leading trainer in Singapore at the time, Teh Choon Beng,” Tiley said.
“They asked me if I wanted to go up there, so after I discussed it with Ray Verner, I decided to take the plunge.
“I was supposed to stay for just the three months but ended up there for two and a half years.
“I won the premiership and rode a hell of a lot of winners including wins in most of their big races.”
Tiley returned briefly to New Zealand before Sydney came calling again in the form of a contract with Brian Mayfield-Smith.
“I went over to Sydney and rode mainly for Brian and a few others there.
“I won the Sires Produce on two-year-old filly Diamond Shower where we beat Bounding Away, the first horse to achieve that.
“I rode plenty of winners for Brian, Paul Sutherland and a few others but towards the end it coincided with the stock market crash so there were plenty of people who got badly burnt by it all and things didn’t end the way I would have liked.
“I went back to Singapore again for a couple of months. While I was there I took the opportunity to pop up to Hong Kong as I really wanted to see their set-up.
“It was purely sightseeing but I ran into the local steward, Phillip Johnson, who asked me what I was doing there.
“We got chatting and he told me they were looking to fill two new positions the Jockey Club had created, one for a northern hemisphere rider and one from the south. He said I was too late but to keep in touch.
“I went to the races that night and he tracked me down again and asked me if I was keen as the opening was now available. I took it and spent four years there, two as the southern hemisphere rep and two as a club rider.”
Towards the end of his Hong Kong sojourn Tiley was weighing up his options when he was approached by several Hong Kong locals about starting out as a trainer.
“Some of the local contacts I had made had bought yearlings in New Zealand through bloodstock agent Anton Koolman and were looking for a trainer,” he said.
“They convinced me they would back me if I went back and set myself up so I had a good think about it. We had a young family at the time so the lure of raising the kids in New Zealand was very strong so I headed home.
“I bought Cliff Fenwick’s old place at Takanini and got stuck in.”
Tiley’s knack of getting a horse to peak at just the right time was immediately evident as he produced Grosvenor gelding Look Who’s Talking to win the 1994 Gr.1 New Zealand Derby (2400m) in his first year of training. He went on to produce a further 146 winners over the next eight and a half years, including ten at stakes level.
Intent on furthering his career overseas Tiley headed to Macau at the end of the 2004/2005 season, an experience that ended in frustration and saw him give the game away for an extended period.
“I got talked into going up to Macau by John Schreck who was the head stipe up there at that time,” Tiley said.
“Things didn’t start off too well when they changed the goalposts on me after I had sent 12 horses up there. They wouldn’t register them and made me find another 16 for new permits.
“That pretty much set the scene but I stuck it out for two years before throwing in the towel.
“I had had enough and needed a break so I came back to New Zealand and ended up managing the national quarantine centre during the Equine Influenza scare as well as spending a short time with Majestic Transport.”
Tiley’s strong bond with the Cole family saw him return to the training ranks in 2012 with a boutique operation at Pukekohe.
“I had been working for David Cole, Alf’s son, at the quarantine centre and he asked me if I would like to go training and help develop his boy Steven into becoming a trainer in his own right,” he said.
“So we took some boxes at Pukekohe with Steven working as my foreman and it has taken off from there. Later on the chance to take over all the boxes in the complex came up when Gareth McRae left to go back to Australia.
“Steven has gone out in his own right now so it is my wife Lee and I and the team we have around us with things going pretty well so far.”
Just how well can be seen with some of the firepower Tiley has at his disposal, including rising three-year-old filly Melt who won at stakes level and finished runner-up in the Gr.1 Manawatu Sires’ Produce Stakes (1400m) this season, Gr.2 Auckland Guineas (1600m) winner Demonetization along with recent Listed Caloundra Cup (2400m) winner Megablast.
“We’ve had a great year including achieving the target we set to get to 25 wins for the season,” Tiley said.
“We also have some real firepower with horses like Melt and Demonetization getting ready for the spring, so there is a lot to look forward to.
“I guess the only real disappointment is losing a horse like Megablast. He won’t be coming back to New Zealand as he will be weighted out of most races due to the handicapping system we have at present.
“The system just doesn’t provide for horses like him so he is better off staying in Australia where he can compete on a better scale and for some decent money.
“He will go to a new trainer after he runs in the two-mile race at the Sunshine Coast this weekend, so it will be sad to see him go.
“Luckily we’ve got a few good ones to concentrate on for next season so I guess you can only look forward in this game and get ready for the next good one that might come your way.”
Given Tiley’s track record, that is likely to be sooner rather than later. – NZ Racing Desk