• Posted: Saturday, 23rd July 2022
  • Author: Jake Exelby
  • Photo: Neale Blackburn

Owner and racegoer Nigel Lilley (pictured right after Silver Louna won at Kingston Blount in 2019) is one of the longest-standing – and, with his striking array of bobble hats, one of the most recognisable – characters on the pointing circuit. He attended his first point-to-point nearly 75 years ago and Jake Exelby – who has known him for a small proportion of that time – was amazed to learn that this perennial youngster (“I put it down to fresh air and not slouching in an armchair”) celebrated his 86th birthday recently. Nigel, who lives in the village of Orleton, Herefordshire – in a triangle between Ludlow, Leominster and Tenbury Wells – spills the beans on ownership, GCHQ and being flagged as a police suicide risk!

How did you get into point-to-pointing in the first place?

My parents moved into a Steeple Aston in North Oxfordshire when I was 11 and our butcher – who rode heavyweight hunters with the Heythrop – organised a coach trip to their point-to-point at Upton Downs, near Burford. I’m told that, after betting a shilling on Another Drambuie (I didn’t know what it meant at the time), I burst into tears of joy when it won! I often chat to the butcher’s grandson – Anthony Walton – at the races. His grandad has a lot to answer for.

I got into ownership when I was 50, because friends said I ought to get a horse to mark the occasion. I was friends with Richard and Carol Lee, so I had shares in the odd horse under rules with them, then I bought the mare National Case in 1994 and asked Bruce Dowling – who rode for them – to train her. She won first time out at Upton-on-Severn and I raced two of her foals – Spicey Case, who Evan Williams described as “absolutely useless” but who won for Caroline Griffiths at Bredwardine and Midnight Case, who was trained by Wyn Morris and ridden by Nathan Deakin when placed.

Who's inspired you most in the world of pointing?

Some of the “gentlemen” amateur riders of 50 years ago, such as Tim Holland-Martin, Robert Chugg, Brian Fanshawe and the eccentric Tony Shaw.

Robert Chugg - inspiration

Who have been your favourite horses?

Again back in the glory days, the likes of (multiple classic winner) Snowdra Queen, Tim Holland-Martin’s Sally Furlong and (subsequent Gold Cup winner) The Dikler. I saw the latter two race against each other at Didmarton in 1969.

More recently, Grey Kid, trained by Wyn Morris and ridden by Nathan Deakin, who was very slow when young but kept improving, Grageelagh Girl and Highway Jewel.

The Dikler - favourite horse

Which jockeys have you most admired? Why?

Hannah Lewis used to ride the horses we shared trained by Caroline Griffiths, such as Mr Cee, and now trains brilliantly for me. Team Gibbs ply me with Welsh cakes, sandwiches and soup after racing, so I must put in a favourable word for Bradley!

Bradley Gibbs - top jockey (photo: Caroline Exelby)

Which have been your favourite courses? Why?

Bredwardine – for the river, the hill and a country crowd. I’d love to see Brampton Bryan and Lower Machen make a comeback, and always had a soft spot for Erw Lon!

Last winter, I went through my old racecards and I have been to 122 courses – 75 that have closed and 47 that are still going. I’ve been to Chaddesley Corbett and Larkhill most often.

Bredwardine - favourite course

What do you love most about pointing?

It’s a day out in the countryside. I enjoy the drive there, walking round the course, watching the horses in the paddock, loaning a pound or two to the bookies, seeing my four and two-legged friends and socialising at the car after racing.

What's been your personal funniest moment in the sport?

I travel to the races with my friend Bob Haycock, who lives near Stratford. We used to meet in a layby next to the River Severn near Maisemore and leave one of the cars there. One day, I came back to find a police notice on my car. When I got home, my neighbours told me the police had come looking for me – because the vehicle had been there all day, they thought I’d jumped off the bridge! We meet somewhere different now.

What's been the highlight of your time in the sport?

National Case’s win in her first race, a first runner for my friend Bruce. More recently, our small local syndicate horse Mr Cee making Chesnut Annie pull out all the stops at Llanvapley.

What are your ambitions in pointing?

To keep having a horse in training, as long as I continue to be able to see it run. My friends have expensive holidays, but I’ve got the horse all year round.

I’d also like to reach my 2000th fixture as a spectator, possibly by 2026 – and we’d have a great party at Bredwardine.

What changes have you seen during your time? For better, for worse?

It’s sad that we’re losing so many courses, particularly those who hold just one fixture a year.

What would you do if you were in charge of the sport?

Who could do it better than our present supremo, who talks to and listens to everyone?

Peter Wright - supremo

With horse numbers at their lowest ever level, what are your concerns about the future?

We’ve lost many Welsh Borders courses, and I’m very concerned about the future in Wales which is my favourite area for pointing.

What reasons do we have to be optimistic?

We may never return to the golden era but a day at a point-to-point always beats my local National Hunt courses at Ludlow and Hereford.

And attendances have been encouraging since Covid restrictions ended, so the blend of picnickers and cognoscenti make me optimistic – also the improved framing of races for horses of different abilities.

What are you most looking forward to about next season?

Hopefully to having a runner again – my mare Lady Trifaldi missed last season with a tendon injury just as the ground became suitable for her. I’d hope to win at least a Restricted with her, and to attend as many meetings as I can within a 100-mile radius of home.

Lady Trifaldi winning at Edgcote (photo: Neale Blackburn)

Which other jockeys, trainers and horses do you expect to do well?

I’d like to see Bradley win a jockeys title and Highway Jewel return to win another top Hunter Chase.

Who do you think will be rising stars?

I’ll be rooting for young Sophie Kitts from Pembrokeshire to join the list of top jockeys from West Wales.

What are your non-horsey hobbies?

Looking after my large garden and soft fruit cage, walking when the weather is kind and going to see local festivals, plays and concerts in the summer.

Who is your non-racing hero?

Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence of Arabia - hero

Who are your favourite authors, books, singers, films and TV programmes?

I have several hundred books, which I sometimes re-read. Fiction and non-fiction about the Welsh Border country rank high and On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin is a favourite. For for a readership of horse people I’ll pick Rosalind Belben’s novel Our Horses in Egypt, which tells the story of a conscripted Dorset hunter and her owner’s search for her in the Middle East at the end of the First World War.

Singers – Paul Anka and Kathleen Ferrier – who are worlds apart from each other. I rarely go to the cinema now, but as a student I saw Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal many times. I watch little on TV beyond jump racing in the winter.

Paul Anka - favourite singer

Who would be your ideal dinner party guests?

I don’t enjoy cooking, so dinner parties are rarely on the menu!

What are your life ambitions?

To remain healthy and cheerful as long as I can.

What's the best present you've ever been given?

A genealogist friend researched my family history a few years ago, and gave me a booklet with details of many of my direct ancestors over the past 400 years – although there’s little of horse interest apart from a stable boy and a coachman! The family on my mother’s side, is believed to have included Jane Austen, though not as a direct ancestor.

Who else should I do one of these features on?

Peter Mansell, West Mercia PRO.

Tell me something I wouldn't know from asking these questions?

Sorry – I know when to keep my mouth shut, after working for 35 years in secret intelligence! (Nigel worked at GCHQ, including doing a Russian course, although he assures me he never had to use it and wasn’t a spy!)

GCHQ - Nigel's alma mater