IT’S not just the quantity of winners – an AP McCoy-like eight victories from 17 rides since Christmas – which prove that jump jockey David Bass is currently in the form of his life.
It is the quality of those successes, not least a long-overdue first Grade One win when Bass rode Barters Hill, one of National Hunt racing’s most exciting young horses, to Challow Hurdle glory at Newbury last week.
He had a long wait to hear his name being read out on the national sports bulletins. It is nearly a decade since Bass joined Nicky Henderson’s yard and four years since being entrusted with the ride on Sprinter Sacre when the equine superstar made a winning steeplechase debut at Doncaster in December 2011.
Then the pressure was etched across the young rider’s face – it was one of his first high-profile rides. Today Bass – older and certainly more wiser – belongs in the big time and believes Barters Hill, a deserved ante-post favourite for the three-mile Albert Bartlett Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, could be his horse of a lifetime.
“The Challow was massive,” the 27-year-old told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “I had had a few seconds in Grade Ones in the past and I was desperate to get one on the board. I have a lot of faith in the horse and I think he could be very special.
“I had ridden him before he even raced and I thought he was very backward. At home, he’s so laid back. He’s very lazy and just plods around the place, but he’s already proved me wrong. it’s good to be involved with a horse like this from the outset.”
The results speak for themselves – four Bumper wins last season, including an informative Grade Two race at Aintree’s Grand National meeting, and two subsequent successes over hurdles leave the Ben Pauling-trained hurdler unbeaten from six starts.
It certainly helps that horse and rider appear tailor-made for each other. “He’s still green. At Newbury, he showed signs of greenness before winning by 12 lengths. He’s still racing lazily. I like to be positive and you have to be positive on him to keep his mind on the job,” said Bass.
“When I first schooled him, I didn’t think he was the most natural of jumpers, but it was him being lazy and going through the motions, but I was really pleased with his hurdling at Newbury and he has the scope to jump a fence in time. I’m sure there’s a lot more to come from him.”
The same applies in equal measure to both Bass and Barters Hill’s young trainer Ben Pauling, who became friends when serving their respective apprenticeships with the aforementioned Henderson.
“We often went racing together in the car,” said the jockey. “Coming from Nicky’s, he knows how to give horses time and be patient. It definitely helped a lot with Barters Hill.”
This approach is reaping rewards – Pauling’s rise to prominence since going it alone in 2013 is one reason why Bass is on the 38-winner mark for the current campaign and on course to beat his personal best tally of 46 successes in the 2014-15 season.
Born in Northamptonshire, he is still a slightly unlikely jockey – his parents are both classical musicians while his youngster sister plays the harp at the prestigious Royal College of Music. Yet Bass is grateful to his parents for taking him point-to-point racing and also inspiring his own passion for music which helps him to relax. This, and a growing awareness of current affairs, means it is easier for him now to accept the disappointment of defeat.
After stints at the British Racing School, and then the yards of Richard Philips and the late point-to-point trainer John Manners, Bass was persuaded by his friend Felix de Giles – now based in France – to join the Seven Barrows stable in Lambourn as Henderson began to acquire future champions like Sprinter Sacre, Bobs Worth and Binocular.
“To ride Sprinter Sacre – just once – was really special,” said Bass.
“I was still a conditional. For Nicky to put the faith in me, it was quite a big thing. I don’t know if I will ever again ride a horse as good as him over fences.”
Bass keeps trying to persuade Nico de Boinville, his house-mate, to forego the ride on Sprinter Sacre now that steeplechasing’s standard-bearer is on the comeback trail following two stirring successes and now bound for the Queen Mother Champion Chase which he won in 2013.
The rivalry between Bass and de Boinville, another Henderson protégé, is a friendly one which is helping spur both to success.
When the former recorded his first winner at the Cheltenham Festival last March when the Kim Bailey-trained Darna bounded clear in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate, the latter trumped this success 24 hours later by winning a fairytale Gold Cup on the novice Coneygree.
“Typical Nico!” joked Bass. “I was getting a bit annoyed with the Cheltenham Festival.
“My strike rate at the course is terrible, but it’s the be-all and end-all. To get on the right horse, and for it to go right, it takes some doing.”
Like his Grade One success, Bass hopes this will be the first many of many Cheltenham Festival successes as he divdes his time between the Pauling, Henderson and Bailey stables.
After Polly Peachum’s last-gasp success at Sandown for Henderson, he’s on the Bailey-trained Un Ace – racing record-breaker AP McCoy’s last Ascot winner – in today’s William Hill Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton.
They have an each-way chance, though 11st 3lb on rain-softened ground might prove their undoing.
“Confidence is a massive thing,” adds Bass with infectious enthusiasm.
“I’m riding good horses for good trainers. The more success you have, the more you want it. I can’t complain.”