37-year-old Chris Dawson (pictured left with brother Phil) is a young man going places. A former successful rider with 130 victories in the saddle, he’s now making a name for himself as owner of the Nunstainton Stud at Ferryhill, County Durham, not far from Sedgefield racecourse. When he and brothers John (a leading jockey on the Yorkshire circuit) and Phil aren’t breeding winners, he’s training them – Chris’ pointing yard is one of the leading exponents in the North at preparing youngsters to win their Maiden prior to being sold. Jake Exelby gave him a call to discover what makes him tick.
How did you get into point-to-pointing?
I was brought up on the family farm… and on the hunting field! Mum and Dad always had pointers, hunters and ponies and Dad was Field Master of the South Durham Hunt. I had my first ride in points aged 17 – having missed what should have been my debut season through foot and mouth – on Spectacular View at Hutton Rudby, then my first win later that same afternoon on Pennyman.
I just rode Mum and Dad’s to start with but John Wade trained just over the road from us and he asked me to ride Polar Gale at Witton Castle one day – that was my first of many winners for him.
Tell me about your breeding operation.
Mum and Dad always had half a dozen broodmares and used to send them to Ireland, but few would come back in foal, so Dad thought he could do it more cheaply himself. We got a well-bred, but unraced, stallion called Dapper – he was by Hernando and a half-brother to Alborada. He started off just covering our own mares then it snowballed – he stood for £400 and would cover a mare if she’d won. He’s got the likes of Hunter Chase winners Dressedforsuccess (successful in his last five at the time of writing) and Dr Kananga and promising West Country mare Where’s Wilma.
He’s passed away but we’ve stood the likes of Millenary and Trans Island and now have Dragon Dancer and Norse Dancer. Trans Island sired I Like To Move It, who my brother John bred and I bought as a foal before selling him as a store to Ian Ferguson. He was the leading British-bred bumper horse last season, for Nigel Twiston-Davies, less than a year after being broken-in.
John and wife Alice - leading breeders
As well as John, my brother Phil – who wanted to be a jockey while I wanted to be a farmer, but ended up playing rugby for Newcastle Falcons instead – is involved in the stud. He’s just married Kevin Darley’s daughter Gemma and through Kevin, we’re moving into flat breeding – we’ve now got ten flat mares and 30 National Hunt.
Who have been your favourite horses?
The best I rode was Always Right for John Wade. I won five points and two Hunter Chases on him and we got round in the Cheltenham Foxhunters. He went on to be useful under rules, winning the Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster and coming third in the Scottish National. He was a top stayer who handled heavy ground.
John Wade and Always Right
I won nine on Sir Alf for Maria Myco in the early part of my career. Seven were at Mordon – I could have ridden him blindfolded round there and learnt how to ride the course. Against all advice, I’d scoot up the hill, catching the others half asleep (!) then be hard to pass coming down.
Of those I trained, Sposalizio was nowhere near the best, but he won 14 races for John Armstrong – a close family friend – in seven consecutive seasons. He was a fast ground specialist.
Chris and Sposalizio, led up by partner Wendy
We were one of the earliest outfits round here to win with youngsters then sell them. Few of our horses win more than one! The first was West End Rocker, who Dad trained to win a Maiden at Whitwell-on-the-Hill. We sold him to Alan King, for whom he won a Becher Chase. More recently, we won with Steely Addition at Hexham and he went to Philip Hobbs, where he was rated as high as 150. He’s back with me now and will point next season.
Which jockeys have you most admired?
I used to look up to the jockeys who rode for my Dad, like Pauline Robson, Noel Wilson and Robin Tate, who’d ride the ones nobody else would get on! In my time, it was the likes of Guy Brewer, Mark Walford and Jacqueline Coward, obviously.
What are your favourite courses and why?
Mordon, my lucky track despite dislocating and fracturing shoulders there! It was my home track – just five minutes from home and owned by John Wade, who I used to work for. I had a four-timer there in 2010 and brought up my century with a treble in 2014.
What's been the highlight of your time in the sport?
Riding my hundredth winner – when I set out, that was my ambition. I was struggling with my weight and remember my pal Tom Oates saying, “Why don’t you just retire?” I replied, “I’ll get to 100 come hell or high water,” and he said, “They won’t write that on your tombstone!” I thought I’d retire them, but decided there was plenty of life in me yet – the next day I went to Sheriff Hutton, crawled out of the ditch after a crashing fall on Lord Multifix, went home on crutches and thought, “Why didn’t I just retire?”
Lord Multifix - Chris had a crashing fall
What changes have you seen during your time? For better, for worse?
I’m a fan of the bumpers – they’re a safe way of giving a horse racecourse experience - and have run a couple at Alnwick, although not many of mine are ready early! We’re behind compared to the Irish who have schooling bumpers and hurdles – so their first time out pointers have been on a course before. I also think we should have more schooling after racing, although most of the Northern courses have multiple fixtures so we can’t school until after the last meeting.
I don’t agree with raising the entry fees to £50, because you make multiple entries to give your horse the best chance of winning and it’s a lot of money, unless you’re in the game to sell your pointers.
What would you do if you were in charge of the sport?
I’d raise the weights of the four-year-olds because a lot of the experienced jockeys – who you’d want to ride them - can’t do the weight.
I’d also look at the penalties in Opens. I’d start with a clean slate every season and go up from 11st 7lbs, adding 3lbs or 5lbs for every win up to a ceiling. I won on Always Right over three miles five furlongs carrying 13st 1lb, so it can be done. We need to allow more horses in Opens the chance to win.
What do you think the impact of lockdown on pointing will be?
There’s a lot of enthusiasm in Yorkshire and many people bringing on young horses for sale – Jack Teal, Nicky Tinkler and the Cowards. However, the Northern Area is struggling for numbers. It’s becoming more expensive for those who do it as a hobby and we need to make coming back to pointing attractive for those – like Vic Thompson and Jimmy Walton – who’ve gone under rules.
I’m also slightly worried about the fixture list – we’re losing courses like Aspatria, Balcormo Mains and Dalston.
What are your ambitions in pointing?
I’m turning my attention more and more to the stud and focusing on breeding rather than pointing, but I’ve still got a dozen to run this season. I want to produce as many winners as we can and I’d love to sell a pointer for £50,000.