IAN POPHAM is a man on a mission, determined to make up for lost time.
Two months ago, this talented young jockey came close to retiring from the saddle – the rides, and wins, had slowed to a trickle following a horrific fall at Market Rasen on Boxing Day, which left him with serious facial injuries, including a broken chin, after he was kicked by a horse.
Now Popham is in the form of his life following Annacotty’s heartwarming win in Cheltenham’s prestigious Paddy Power Gold Cup last month after the horse’s owner stayed loyal to the unlucky 25-year-old when many others would not have been so generous-hearted.
He hopes the run of success will continue at Wetherby on Boxing Day where his rides include Dan Skelton’s progressive What A Good Night in the feature 188Bet Rowland Meyrick Chase.
This prestigious race, likely to be watched by a bumper 10,000-plus crowd at the West Yorkshire track, has attracted a 10-strong field, which is headed by defending champion Dolatulo and Jonjo O’Neill’s Cheltenham Gold Cup fourth Holywell.
However, this holds no qualms for the likeable Popham whose catalogue of injuries has contributed to the National Health Service’s record deficit.
“The horse won at Bangor last time and he would have won the time before at Stratford but for tipping up the last,” said Popham who comes in for the ride because Skelton’s younger brother Harry is required to ride Al Ferof in Kempton’s William Hill King George VI Chase.
“The horse was a course winner at Wetherby last season under Harry and Dan has targeted this race since Bangor. I sat on him on Tuesday and he seems very well – 10 stone and soft ground is ideal.”
After such a stop-start career that has been interrupted by three broken collarbones, two heavy falls, which both resulted in a badly fractured pelvis, and countless other injuries that culminated in the Market Rasen trauma last Christmas, Popham’s quiet determination speaks volumes about his resilience and perseverance.
Having started his career with Philip Hobbs, he joined the yard of Paul Nicholls when the champion trainer was dominating jump racing with iconic horses like Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded and Big Bucks.
The aforementioned Skelton was assistant trainer at the time, a connection now paying dividends after the rider opted to leave the Nicholls stable in search of more rides.
“When my claim was reduced to three pounds, I wasn’t riding as much for Paul,” explained Popham.
His freelance status saw him team up with West Yorkshire-born Martin Keighley and this yielded a landmark Grade One success on Boxing Day two years ago when Annacotty won the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton.
It was a coming of age ride for Popham whose career continued to be punctuated by injury mishaps before his calamitous fall at Market Rasen, which saw him lucky to escape with a fractured cheekbone, broken chin-bone and yet another busted collarbone on top of two lost teeth.
He underwent surgery to plate his chin together – Popham had been kicked in the face when his fall brought down pursuing horses – and he endured a liquid diet until the wounds healed.
When he was finally fit to resume riding, the opportunities were not there – racing does not wait for injury-prone freelancers to heal. “It does get you down,” he said with characteristic candour.
“Life is not easy. At times, I wasn’t far off from quitting. It wasn’t happening and I just thought ‘it’s not be’. I had to remind myself not to back off. If I did, that would be it.
“If you had asked me at the beginning of November how the year was going, I would have said that things needed to pick up.”
Salvation came in the form of Annacotty, who rolled back the years with a breathtaking win in the Paddy Power Cup. Even though owner Liz Prowting had moved the horse in the summer to Alan King’s yard, she had no qualms about Popham keeping the ride and he rewarded her faith with a quite nerveless display.
As he tried to take in the magnitude of the win, Popham was overwhelmed by the warm response from fellow riders, and also racing devotees, who were all too aware of his struggles.
“It’s quite nice to be liked,” he remarked.
He is also grateful for the opportunities being provided by the ambitious and expansive Skelton team, which saw him partner Virgilio to victory in a top handicap hurdle at Aintree’s Becher Chase meeting three weeks ago – it reminded racing that Annacotty’s success was not a fluke.
Popham believes Virgilio could be a horse to follow in 2016 – he says the gelding won impressively by eight lengths despite being too keen in the early stages and that there is much more to come.
In the meantime, Popham hopes to round off an eventful year by riding What A Good Night in the Rowland Meyrick before getting the leg-up on the Abricot De L’oasis, another progressive Skelton horse, in the subsequent handicap hurdle.
As for 2016, the jockey has just one wish: “To stay healthy and to stay fit.” On past form, that would constitute a significant success in this most arduous of sports.