Five years ago, trainer Ralph Nicks wasn't sure he'd make it through the winter. His New York-based stable had dwindled to just 12 horses, and he would end up saddling the winners of just 13 races in 2012 – the smallest number of his career.
“I didn't know where (my career) was headed,” said the trainer, with the slightest hint of a midwestern drawl. “If I was ever going to have to do something else it was gonna be where the weather was warm, though.”
Nicks, a practical man who doesn't beat around the bush, quickly made the life-altering decision to take his family and stable to Florida and remain there year-round.
“When Gulfstream started year-round racing it really changed my career,” Nicks said. “I think winning attracted new clients, and being here in the summertime I got to get horses for some clients who had a little more depth in their outfits… It just built up from there.”
Fast forward to last weekend: Nicks was in the winner's circle celebrating his first Breeders' Cup victory with 2-year-old filly Caledonia Road at Del Mar.
“With the tears running down my eyes, it was a very wild moment in my life,” he said. “It was just amazing… it's hard to put it into words.”
To buy and train Caledonia Rd. Is very rewarding to me. Amazing feeling! pic.twitter.com/LFzh5enQHb
— Ralph Nicks Racing (@ralphnks) November 7, 2017
There were two factors which made the win even sweeter, Nicks added. First, he had helped to pick out the daughter of Quality Road at the Keeneland September sale. Part-owner Luke Paiement (Zoom and Fish Stable) worked on the catalog pages at the sale while Nicks did the physical evaluations; they walked away with Caledonia Road for $140,000.
“She had a lot of leg on her and got across the ground well,” Nicks said. “The things you can't see when you're buying yearlings is the desire and heart and the quality of the racehorse.”
Secondly, Nicks was able to celebrate the win with long-time friend Mike Smith. Caledonia Road marked the first time the friends had worked together on the track and while the Hall of Fame rider has the record for the most Breeders' Cup wins in history, his win for Nicks was his only 2017 success in the World Championships.
Smith and Nicks met as young boys plying their skills in the saddle. Nicks' father, midwestern training stalwart Morris Nicks, had raised his family at the racetrack, caring for a sizeable stable with often just the three-person family unit and perhaps one stable hand doing all the work.
Almost inevitably, the 16-year-old Nicks dreamed of being a jockey.
After apprenticing at Louisiana Downs, Nicks met Smith at Oaklawn Park and was immediately impressed.
“I didn't have much talent and Mike had a lot,” Nicks said matter-of-factly. “We were very friendly from that point on. We've had a lot of good times through the years until he went to the west coast and I was on the east coast. So there's a friendship there also.”
When he realized the jockey career wasn't going to work out, Nicks went back to work for his father for a few years. At 22 years of age, he took a job with trainer Bill Mott, eventually earning a “master's degree” in horsemanship.
For 13 years Nicks was a top assistant to the Hall of Fame trainer. Based primarily in Kentucky while wintering in Florida, Nicks also traveled across the country with some of Mott's top horses. He was able to work with Horse of the Year Cigar, as well as Breeders' Cup Champions Fraise (1992 Turf), Ajina (1997 Distaff) and Escena (1998 Distaff).
“It's hard not to learn from somebody like him,” Nicks said. “(Mott) has a lot of horse in him. His ability to read an animal, work ethic, and the way he handles a horse. He's a special individual, and a lot of people don't know that to watch him around the horses was amazing.”
Nicks' favorite horse during his tenure with Mott was Paradise Creek, the 1994 Champion Older Turf Male. The Irish River horse won the Arlington Million and the Washington D.C. International before finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Turf that year, and closed out his career with a second-place finish in the G1 Japan Cup in Tokyo.
“He wasn't easy to handle and I spent a lot of time with him,” Nicks said. “I rode Paradise Creek an awful lot. I got on him daily when he was where my location was at.”
When the time came to leave Mott's employ, Nicks actually engaged in a brief career as a jockey agent for Mark Guidry. He wasn't satisfied with that gig, and took a position as a private trainer for Team Valor in 2003. That didn't work out either, and Nicks hung out his shingle as a public trainer in 2004.
Some of his first horses came from Mott's stable, including his first graded stakes winner Cool Conductor (2005 G2 Dixie Handicap). Before Caledonia Road, Nicks' only other Grade 1 win was with Aubby K in the 2013 Humana Distaff.
A gelding named Speechify brought Nicks and Luke Paiement together for the first time. Paiement was a part of the Team Valor syndicate who raced the grade 3 winner with Nicks' stable, and the owner later bought some cheap horses to put in Nicks' stable.
In 2016, Paiement and his partner Charlie Spiring took Nicks went to the sales for the first time and purchased a pair of yearlings. One was Caledonia Road, prompting Nicks to laugh and say, “Well, the bar might be set a little high now.”
The filly has won two of her three career starts, and was second in the G1 Frizette in her second start. Earnings of $1,229,800 have certainly made a good return on investment for her ownership, which also includes Newton Anner Stud; Caledonia Road has made more than eight times her purchase price in just three races.
The Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner is currently the Kentucky Oaks favorite, and may end up as Nicks' first Eclipse Award winner.
“You'd certainly hope so,” Nicks said. “To dominate the Breeders' Cup around two turns… two turn-races are where champions are supposed to be crowned. She's five-wide on both turns, and as Trakus had it she ran 3 ½ lengths further than anyone else in the race and won by 3 ¼ lengths. It's easy to be selfish or partial, but looking at it all in all her record is a little bit hard to pick on.”
Check out the jockey-cam view of Mike Smith's Breeders' Cup win aboard Caledonia Road:
Nicks indicated that Caledonia Road will spend the next month or so in Florida in light training, then point to major filly races in the spring.
These days, Nicks keeps his South Florida base year-round and takes a smaller string to New York in the spring, summer and fall. He averages 55 horses in training, and while Caledonia Road is certainly the stable star, the entire string has been on the upswing. Through 2012, Nicks trainees had run out just under $8 million in earnings. From 2013 on, his stable has earned over $11 million, and 2017 is Nicks' best year yet.
“There's a lot of good horse people out there who don't get the opportunities I've been blessed with throughout my 13-year career,” said Nicks. “Even though I've been up and down, and at one point was wondering if I was going to continue to do it or not. I think you create your own luck with a willingness to work hard and make changes.”
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