SAM Waley-Cohen has just pulled up Long Run after a pulsating gallop. He’s been riding alongside AP McCoy, who casts an envious glance in his direction. The 15-time champion jockey is looking for a Cheltenham Gold Cup ride.
“No chance mate,” mutters Waley-Cohen, one of this country’s most successful amateur riders and whose family continues to uphold the Corinthian values that have defined National Hunt racing’s hallmark through the generations.
The emphatic winner of last month’s King George VI Chase, Long Run – a French-bred chaser – is owned by Waley-Cohen’s father Robert, one of racing’s most successful breeders. He bought the horse for his talented son to ride and to maintain his family’s love affair with the sport.
Now tipped to become the first six-year-old horse to win Cheltenham’s blue riband race since Mill House prevailed in 1963, a year before Arkle started rewriting the record books, McCoy can only sit and watch at the yard of top trainer Nicky Henderson, who recorded his 2,000th winner yesterday.
This is due to a transformation in Long Run’s jumping. A year ago, he was still prone to the occasional heart-stopping blunder when winning the informative Kingmaker Novices Chase at Warwick – a race in which the Henderson-trained Finian’s Rainbow, the mount of Malton-born Andrew Tinkler, is a warm favourite for today’s renewal.
“He’s grown up a lot since the Kingmaker last year,” says Waley-Cohen who combines his riding interest with running a major London-based dental company.
“I have tried to adapt my riding technique to better suit him. With Long Run, the difference is to be quite forward-thinking and ask him to stretch into the fence.
“There will be those in racing who say this is a sure-fire way of getting squashed, but you need to know the horse well and the horse needs to know you.”
Waley-Cohen, a friend of Kate Middleton’s family and whose grandfather is a former Lord Mayor of London, has been riding Long Run once a week “to keep the relationship special” – and the aforementioned McCoy within his sights.
With his Cheltenham date for destiny a month away, he’ll now be in the saddle for most of the horse’s more serious training sessions while undergoing a rigorous personal fitness regime.
Not racing every day, Waley-Cohen will run many miles each day. Unlike professional jockeys, he does not have the natural fitness that the battle-hardened professionals build up throughout the season.
He has no regets, though. On a gap year after his A-levels, he contemplated, briefly, a career as a jockey – but decided that the monotony would spoil his enjoyment of a sport that, notably, has seen him win the Foxhunters at Cheltenham and Aintree on the brilliant mare Liberthine before finishing fifth on her in the 2007 Grand National.
As his career evolved, he always dreamed about winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup – but, realistically, he thought he would never have a horse good enough to challenge the very best. Now, after putting the imperious Kauto star (and that man McCoy) to the sword in the King George, Waley-Cohen can live the dream.
It is not, however, a stress-free experience.
“Life’s bloody busy,” says Waley-Cohen, 28, as he dives out of one early-morning meeting at Portman Healthcare to speak to the Yorkshire Post before dashing off to Taunton for a ride – albeit a winning one – on Thursday. He makes every minute count, in tribute to his brother, Tom, who died from cancer at the age of 20 and whose initials have been lovingly embroidered into his saddle.
He dreads, however, the early-morning phone call to say Long Run has had a training setback. Racing is “fickle”, he says. A slight setback means Roulez Cool his 2011 Foxhunters’ hope, will miss Cheltenham and Aintree.
“It’s not a question of getting there; horse and jockey have got to be 100 per cent on the day. Horses not quite fit, like Wayward Lad in 1986 for Monica Dickinson, simply don’t win,” he says.
“It’s not easy when you’re dealing with a racehorse and a jockey like me. Racing is one of those sports – it can all change in a split-second. It’s so fickle. When you are so close to a life’s dream, like riding in the Gold Cup, you’re worried that you’re going to slip on the pavement. The pressure is really on.
“But what a life; riding out along AP in the mornings and then dashing off to do deals at work while thinking of Cheltenham.”
While stablemate Finian’s Rainbow, today’s Kingmaker favourite, has the speed and class to be the ante-post favourite for the two-mile Arkle Trophy, Waley-Cohen has always felt that Long Run has the acceleration, and endurance, to excel over longer distances.
Though the horse’s two runs at Cheltenham in the RSA Chase and Paddy Power Gold Cup have ended in defeat, the only setbacks in the horse’s evolving career, Waley-Cohen believes Long Run’s improved jumping means that he has every chance of silencing the doubters at NH racing’s headquarters.
“People said he jumped brilliantly in the King George and he did, but he made some errors as well and there is a possibility that he’ll get better than that,” he revealed.
“He ran a fantastic race but he should come on for it and let’s hope he can come out and show that form again.”
While excited about the prospect of landing the most prestigious prize in National Hunt racing, Waley-Cohen is respectful of previous Gold Cup kings Kauto Star, Denman and Imperial Commander.
“There are three previous winners in this year’s Gold Cup and they’ll all be there running big races. A race like that takes so much winning and you need so much luck on the day,” added Waley-Cohen. “You open the paper and look at the opposition and you just think it’s a great honour to be among them.”