AS job interviews go, teenage rider Ryan Hatch’s could not have been more straightforward when he joined Cheltenham Gold Cup and Grand National-winning trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies.
“My dad texted Fergal O’Brien, who was assistant to ‘Nige’ at the time, and he replied ‘Start Monday’,” revealed the jockey as he prepares to ride his own Gold Cup contender, Blaklion, in Wetherby’s feature bet365 Charlie Hall Chase this Saturday.
It was a shrewd decision by both parties. Fresh-faced Hatch, just 16, had his dream job and the trainer had employed a young rider who would prove good enough to partner Blaklion to Grade One RSA Chase glory at the Cheltenham Festival a month after winning Wetherby’s Towton Novices Chase in February.
More top-flight success followed weeks later when Hatch won a Grade One novice hurdle at Aintree’s National meeting on Ballyoptic who, coincidentally, is due to reappear in the West Yorkshire Hurdle, the Charlie Hall’s chief supporting contest.
Hatch had always set his heart on being a rider, but completed his full-time schooling before his real education began at the Twiston-Davies ‘youth academy’ near Cheltenham.
Like the slightly gruff trainer, the teenager knew what to expect – his father John had worked for triple Gold Cup-winning trainer Henrietta Knight.
“I mucked out. I was just a stable lad. I had to do all the dirty stuff and show a willing attitude,” Hatch told The Yorkshire Post. “You have to start at the bottom and work your way up.”
It proved fortuitous that top jockey Paddy Brennan chose to move on after winning the 2010 Gold Cup on Imperial Commander – this allowed the trainer’s son, Sam, to blossom as one of the best young National Hunt riders on either side of the Irish Sea.
Far from Hatch being rivals to Twiston-Davies, his brother Willy, who rides on the Flat, and conditional jump jockey Jamie Bargary, these young tyros are the best of friends who share each other’s highs and lows.
When Twiston-Davies junior started teaming up with champion trainer Paul Nicholls before succeeding the peerless Ruby Walsh as stable jockey at Ditcheat, it was Hatch who was given a chance to start riding horses of the calibre of Blaklion and Ballyoptic after a coming-of-age win aboard Splash Of Ginge in the 2014 Betfair Hurdle – historically known as the Schweppes – at Newbury.
That said, Blaklion’s steeplechasing debut at Cheltenham last November was an inauspicious one when the pocket-like horse parted company with Hatch.
While some connections (the horse runs in the colours of Simon Such and Gino Paletta, who own top-class hurdler The New One) would have made the jockey the scapegoat, this was just another learning exercise at racing’s ‘university of life’.
Horse and rider made amends at Cheltenham’s December meeting, finishing second at the iconic Cotswolds track on New Year’s Day before heading to Wetherby for the Towton where Hatch could not utilise his three pound weight allowance – he is still to ride 75 career winners – because it was a Grade Two contest.
It made no difference – the winning margin was an emphatic eight lengths. “He beat good yardsticks in the Brian Ellison horse Definitly Red and Native River,” recalled Hatch, speaking between races in Aintree’s weighing room.
“He did it in hock-deep ground and just outgalloped them. We knew then he could be something special.”
This was nothing compared to the elation of the RSA Chase when Hatch showed great composure, despite his relative inexperience, to beat a star-studded field. The winning trainer’s tribute could not have been more fulsome.
“Ryan rode him beautifully. He should have been claiming three pounds, but he wasn’t. What a good ride,” said Twiston-Davies.
“The boys in the yard do all the work so we try and keep all the rides split between them. Ryan is very patient in a race and very good over a fence.”
That was nothing compared to the reception afforded Blaklion and Hatch by the NH faithful.
“There’s no other feeling like it,” said the jockey. “I thought I would be in the first three turning in, and after winging the second-last I was a bit short at the last, but he was quick away and I knew he would stay on. He’s learned so much and he’s hardy – a dream to ride.
“It was so surreal. Blaklion is not very big, but he has the heart of a lion. And Nige? He’s given me an amazing amount of chances that a lot of conditionals don’t get – I’m very fortunate. When you get a horse that has won a three mile Grade One novice at Cheltenham, the Gold Cup is the obvious one.”
First there is Wetherby – provided the ground is not too quick for Blaklion and Balloptic, whose ultimate target is next year’s World Hurdle.
“You have to have grand ambitions,” adds Ryan Hatch. “But you have to have the horses – you can’t do it without them.” Or a more than willing trainer.