Nigel Benstead, who is based at Firle on the South Downs, has been a fixture on the South East pointing scene for the past 30 years and is probably still best known for his association with The Lager Lout – who gave him his first winner as an owner in 1992, then as a jockey a year later. He had his last ride – Bringinthebranston – in 2019 at the age of 66 and claims, “I haven’t officially retired – someone might resurrect me!”. Nigel has just enjoyed a successful campaign as a trainer with the likes of Streets Of London and Thomas Junior and Jake Exelby caught up with this engaging character to find out about his life and times in the sport.
How did you get into point-to-pointing?
I used to ride ponies as a kid and a friend of mine had a pointer that I remember leading-up at Tweseldown when I was ten. I thought, “I’d love to be back here one day,” but it took me 30 years until I had my first win there when I was 40. My first horse was Merrington, a schoolmaster who I trained and rode myself – I used to ride like John Wayne – but it was Richard Parker who really got me going and trained The Lager Lout. He won three races for Andrew Hickman in 1992, including the Grants Cherry Brandy Hunter Chase at Folkestone, beating the odds-on favourite.
Who have been your favourite horses?
I’ve had a number of good ones over the years including Jack of Kilcash – on whom I won three points in a row in 2003 – Danaeve and Montanel. Going further back, there was Some Tourist – who my daughter Charlotte also rode – and Southernair, a useful ex-rules horse who had horrid legs and had a long time off before he ran for me in points but who was a Rolls Royce. The first time I rode him, I hadn’t planned to go more than one and a half circuits, but I couldn’t pull him up! He ran on like a train, we weren’t beaten far and we won next time out at Tweseldown.
Nigel with partner Beverley and Phil York after Danaeve won at Aldington
Which jockeys have you most admired?
Of those who’ve ridden for me, Chris Gordon, Andrew Hickman and Yorky (Phil York) of course. Among my rivals, Paul Hacking was always very hard to beat and had nice horses. Peter Bull was very competitive and David Robinson had some serious animals, like Struggles Glory. David was 66 – the same age as me - when he had his last ride.
Nigel riding Bringinthebranston
Who's inspired you most in the world of pointing?
Originally, it was Richard Parker, who used to push me forward. Latterly, it’s been Yorky. He doesn’t build himself up but he’s had nearly 400 winners, which is amazing. He’s also had some serious falls and I’ve had to drive his lorry home many times. He’s an iron man.
Phil York: iron man
What are your favourite courses and why?
Tweseldown, of course. I used to live in Aldershot as a boy so it was my local course – to go back there many years later and win was a triumph. It was also one of the very few courses with a water jump.
What's been your personal funniest moment in the sport?
Believe it or not, it involves Mr York! I was on Lord Of The North at Peper Harow one day and we were coming through to challenge him. But we rooted the fence and bounced up in the air – I believe there’s a ‘look mum, no hands’ picture of me in the air! We recovered to finish second and Yorky just looked round and said, deadpan, “You tw*t!”
And I used to have a horse called Pass Me By. He was a horror to hunt and Tom Cannon, who’d ridden him under rules, said, “You haven’t bought that, have you? It’s a b*stard!” At Godstone, we went through the fence and stood no chance. Tom was upsides me at the time and just went, “Told you so!” Next time out at Parham, I was desperate to win the Hunt race and went for a long one at the second last… which didn’t work. They put the screens round me and apparently it took me seven minutes to come round. I gave the horse back to the previous owners after that. (Not sure that story actually qualifies as funny, Nigel…)
What do you love most about pointing?
The people. While there’s rivalry, there’s also camaraderie. Everyone helps each other and we’re all in it together. You don’t get that under rules.
What are your ambitions in pointing?
I’d love to have a runner in either Foxhunters. Streets Of London could do it – we’ll see what happens – and he’d be more suited to Cheltenham. It would be lovely to put Yorky up before he stops.
What's been the highlight of your time in the sport?
Yorky’s win on Thomas Junior at Kingston Blount in May. It was the 50th anniversary of the course and Yorky’s 50thwinner there – a record. It was a lovely day.
Phil York winning on Thomas Junior at Kingston Blount
Do you have any regrets?
No - apart from getting older and no longer riding!
What changes have you seen during your time for the better?
The ground’s improved. 20 years ago, they used to say it was raceable and it would be like a road. And the standard of jockeyship is better. Jockeys are fitter than they used to be – you can’t drink, then ride the next day any more!
What would you do if you were in charge of the sport?
I couldn’t improve on Peter Wright. He’s been a revelation and I wouldn’t like to follow him.
Peter Wright: revelation
What are your plans for next season?
I’m looking for another horse to add to my two but they’re very expensive – horses that used to cost £6,000 are £20,000 now. Ireland dictates the prices – if their stock goes down in value, it could bring prices down over here, which might be a good thing. Horses across the board cost ridiculous money now – not just thoroughbreds. The Retraining of Racehorses charity has given horses a second career, but it also raises prices because they have another outlet.
What do you think the impact of lockdown on pointing will be?
A lot of people who’ve gone under rules – not just owners, but also trainers and jockeys, won’t come back. I do it for fun and love, not money, but you can get £350 for finishing eighth under rules and that’s more than you get for winning an Open.
There will be fewer horses, particularly in the South East. David Phelan will be the top men down here – he’s a shrewd cookie and I reckon he’ll have six to eight maidens to run. I also hear he’s got a new jockey who should be alright.
David Phelan: shrewd cookie
Who are your favourite singers and bands?
I’m an old rocker, so it’s stuff like the Eagles, Pink Floyd and ZZ Top. The last gig I saw before lockdown was American singer Bonnie Raitt.
Bonnie Raitt: Nigel's a fan
What about films and TV?
I like farming programmes. Clarkson’s Farm knocks spots off Countryfile!
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken?
At this point, Nigel spends five minutes telling me a convoluted tale involving him hanging off a parapet with a 60-foot drop and a character called ‘Smelly Pete’. I tell him it’s a good story but will require some editing for the article. Nigel’s response? “Don’t bother – all the boys think I’m mad anyway!”