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Introducing the new voice of Aussie racing; Greg Nichols is responsible for attracting foreign raiders to the top races Down Under.

THE annual recruitment drive to attract runners to the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival is under way. The aim is the same, it is the face that's different. With Les Benton, the first man who actively wooed European trainers to race their horses in Australia, now working in Dubai, his role as general manager of the Victoria Racing Club, a job which controls 65 racecourses and 35,000 employees, has been taken up by 41-year-old Greg Nichols.

A native of New South Wales, Nichols comes to one of the most illustrious posts in Australian racing via an unusual route. A student of political sciences-"I lasted eight weeks"-he then played as a semi-pro for the well-known Aussie rules team Geelong before setting up a liquor store.

But there has been a strong family link with racing, with both his grandfather and his father training horses on a low-level basis. Nichols opted for a less hands-on approach, starting with the management of the Murrumbidgee Turf Club-a course on the third of four tiers in the country's racecourse structure-before upgrading to posts with the South Australian Jockey Club, and last year landing what he describes as "the best role in racing administration in Australia".

He oversees a situation which will bring tears to the eyes of British racing's politicians. "Our philosophy is to encourage a return to the owners at all times," Nichols says, revealing that even unplaced runners are often rewarded with "65 to 70 per cent" of their weekly training fees. Intriguingly, the Victoria Racing Club's "non wagering revenues", boosted by a licence to operate fruit machines, is growing faster than its wagering streams.

Nichols' current 11-day trip in Europe will see him scout not just England and Ireland, but France and Germany for horses suitable to run in a high-class trio of races this autumn-the BMW Cox Plate, Foster's Caulfield Cup and Foster's Melbourne Cup.

"I'm trying to promote the races in my own way," he says. "My credibility is critical to me. Integrity is the most important asset you can have. If you are a bullshitter you get found out."

The jingoism of some resident trainers and jockeys last year, objecting to an 'invasion' of overseas runners in Australia's top races, does not, Nichols insists, reflect the overall views of the country.

He is determined to attract "at least" one overseas runner to the Cox Plate, Australia's most prestigious weight-for-age race, which is included in the new Emirates World Series. David Elsworth's Lear Spear is one long-range target.

A week earlier than that, Nichols is hopes for "two or three" challengers for the Caulfield Cup, won so memorably last year by the Lady Herries-trained Taufan's Melody, and "four or five" in the big one itself, the Melbourne Cup. Early indications are that Godolphin is keen to compete in the race again, its founder Sheikh Mohammed having been so taken with the typically informal but friendly reception from the Australian racing public last year.

The racing world is getting smaller and smaller and Nichols wants to ensure Australian racing, particularly that in Victoria, shrinks with it-regardless of any local reservations.

"It is mischievous to suggest we should limit the number of international runners," he says. "We are prepared to travel our horses to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan; we can't be unique and isolate ourselves from international competition.

"There are very few people who actually feel like that. There are inevitably one or two who hanker for the old days, but they aren't going to return.

"The reason I'm here is to promote Australian racing-show the world that we are competitive and ready to change. For us to have a closed mind is counter-productive."

Asian runners, particularly from Japan, will also be targeted for the Spring Carnival. The desire for North American runners is likely to be anchored by realism. "The traditional conflict of the Breeders' Cup means we are not going to enjoy a great deal of support," Nichols admits.

No matter. A neat hiatus in the sporting calendar means that the Melbourne Carnival, which runs for over a month, dominates media coverage.

"You would not believe the coverage we get in the papers," Nichols says. "Racing is on the back page every day for that period. Over here it would take something like the Grand National or Frankie Dettori riding all seven winners at Ascot for that to happen.

"But you wouldn't have that dominance of the back pages if you didn't have the participation of the English and Irish horses."

Nichols is adamant that an overseas interest in Australian races, especially the Melbourne Cup, provides an invaluable spur for the racing industry. He also recognises the irony that last year's wails of protests, when a local horse was taken out of the race to accommodate the Paul Cole-trained Yorkshire, also helped publicise the Cup.

But the greatest coup came when Dermot Weld and Mick Kinane stunned the world by taking the race in 1993.

"I don't want to sound nauseating, but Dermot Weld, I really think he's a genius," Nichols says. "Everybody was so sceptical when Vintage Crop won the Irish St Leger and didn't have a run before the Melbourne Cup. For someone to do that, it's just a huge achievement.

"In the minds of the Australians, we think that you have got to run a horse every two weeks. What Weld achieved has had a huge effect. It has made Australian trainers take a look at themselves and say: 'This is not the only way to train a racehorse'."

The intended presence this year of the Queen's Blueprint could have an even more remarkable effect, Nichols believes. "Australia is soon to have a referendum on whether to remain a monarchy. If Blueprint were to run or even win it could have a profound effect on the way people think," he says.

The furore of attempting to have the best possible field last year has prompted changes to the conditions of this year's Cup.

Because of the internationally disparate nature of prize-money levels, a horse's eligibility will this year be based on the basis of black-type. "If you are placed one, two or three in a Group race or win a Listed race, you will be given preference," Nichols says. "It is a better basis than prize-money."

But be warned, rules may still be bent. "We will exercise our discretion again if we feel it is necessary. We reserve the right to have the best horses in the best races."

Even Blueprint is not safe. "It would be tremendous to have a runner of the Queen's but we wouldn't compromise our principle of having the best possible field," Nichols says.

But who would tell the owner?
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jul 19, 1999
Words:1121
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