the affinity between Peter Niven and Graham Lee will always be special.
Both are products of the Mary Reveley jumping academy in North Yorkshire where there has always been a premium of horsemanship.
Both jockeys had the distinction of recording a landmark 1,000 winners under National Hunt rules – a significant achievement for Northern-based riders.
And both are now excelling on the Flat – Niven as a trainer and Lee as an in-demand jockey – thanks to the success of horses like Clever Cookie who will attempt to defy top-weight today in the Stowe Family Law LLP Grand Cup, a course and distance trial for August’s prestigious Betfred Ebor.
As such, these kindred spirits have every reason to be optimistic after Clever Cookie, a horse who excelled over hurdles during the winter, showed his versatility and class by winning on the Flat at Doncaster before landing the StanJames.com Stakes – the opening race of the Dante festival – with eyecatching ease.
It will not be easy. Godolphin’s Cap O’Rushes, the Andrew Balding-trained Rawaki and First Mohican from Alan King’s yard will be formidable opponents today.
Yet Niven feels his hand has been forced because his stable star needs to run on the Flat for a third time to see if Classic Cookie is a contender for the John Smith’s Cup; he’s still assessing the horse’s optimum trip on the level.
“We’re probably flying a bit high, but we’ve got to get that third run into him and we’re very short of options, to say the least,” said Niven as he explained his quandary.
“With his rating of 96 he can’t get into 0-95 handicaps, and because he’s only run twice on the Flat he can’t run in any handicap worth more than £30,000.
“That leaves us with only a couple of options in handicaps, one of which was over seven furlongs at Doncaster, and we don’t want to be going back to that sort of trip.
“Obviously he can run in conditions races and this is one of them, so we’ll see how we go. I think he’ll handle the ground and the track is obviously fine. We don’t know about the trip. We’ll just have to wait and see.
“The race is a bit classier than I hoped it would be, but he’s ready to take his chance. His big aim is the Ebor. It will tell us whether he stays the mile and six (furlongs) or not. The John Smith’s Cup over one mile two furlongs could also be an option.”
Such detail suggests that Classic Cookie, bred by Niven’s mother Joan in Angus, Scotland, is likely to concentrate on the Flat following his exploits over hurdles last winter.
Triumphant in three successive races, the winning run came to a slightly abrupt end when the horse was a distant eighth to John Quinn’s Cockney Sparrow in the QTS Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr.
Niven is reluctant to divulge the reason for this inexplicably poor run, but he cannot be more proud of the fact that Clever Cookie was his very first York winner.
This, after all, is a man steeped in jump racing. His first winner came at Sedgefield in 1984 on a horse called Loch Brandy.
In May 2001, and thanks to his association with the Reveley family, he became the first Scotsman and sixth jockey to ride over 1,000 winners.
When he retired shortly afterwards with 1,002 successes to his name, he was the only jockey to have won five races in a day on four separate occasions.
He was not just an accumulator of winners – Grade One honours included the 1995 Liverpool Hurdle on the Reveley’s Cab On Target and the 1994 RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival when he partnered the John Edwards-trained Monsieur Le Cure.
“It was the attention to detail at the Reveleys,” Niven told The Yorkshire Post. “They were very good at placing horses. They kept them in lower grade races for as long as possible to give them the best possible chance of winning.
“James (Reveley) was just a kid at the time – he was on ponies. Now he’s winning races in France. As for Graham Lee, I think he is very lucky that he is light enough. He was my understudy so we go back a long way.
“He’s very good – he’s just a very mature jockey.
“He rides a race well and he has seen it all.
“He’s riding with a cool head and he has a good brain for the Flat. It was brilliant that we got a winner at York. I’d never had one so it was great.”
Niven is not the only unheralded former jump jockey who will be trying to lower the colours of more established names on the Knavesmire today.
The same applies to Paul Midgley whose Monsieur Joe will be looking to replicate his Dante festival win in the five-furlong £50,000 BetBright Trophy – today’s Scoop6 race where eight winning ticket-holders from last week will attempt to win a £5.48m bonus that has been accrued from 12 successive rollovers.
An excellent servant to leading sprint trainer Robert Cowell over the years, Monsieur Joe switched hands last October and made his debut for Midgley at the Dubai Carnival where he ran creditably in defeat.
After failing to make an impact in Lingfield’s Hever Sprint, the seven-year-old made a winning return to turf action with a 25-1 triumph in the York race which celebrated Jack Berry House, the Injured Jockeys Fund facility now being built in Malton.
Midgley, based at Leavening near Malton, is hopeful that Monsieur Joe can win again. Like Clever Cookie, Graham Lee will be looking for a repeat success in the saddle.
“He has come out of his last race at York really well and is in good form. We have gone up 5lb and he will have to contend with a bit slower ground but I hope he will run well. He is very talented, very laid back and very easy-going. He is genuinely nice,” he said.
“I was saying the other day, now he has gone up to 105, he is the highest-rated horse we’ve ever had. When you get up to that stage, everything is really tough instead of being just very tough! But it is excellent to have one that you can go to nice places like York with.”
The horse is another advertisement of Midgley’s own ability. Since swapping the saddle for a training licence in 2003, he has sent out a steady supply of winners – the latest being Naggers who struck by 10 lengths in a maiden at Redcar on Monday.
“Touch wood, they are running well,” said Midgley, “They’ve hit the ground running... long may it continue.”
Tumblewind represents Scarcroft trainer Richard Whitaker following a decisive victory at Thirsk. He said: “She’s going to be running off her highest ever mark with a rating of 90 and whether she’s good enough to win off that, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Wetherby’s Robin Bastiman, best known for his handling of dual Nunthorpe winner Borderlescott, believes Singeur is in peak condition. He said: “These races are a bit of a lottery. He’s really well at home. I don’t think I could have him any better, to be honest. Whatever he does is as good as he is.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Peter Niven and Paul Midgley, two trainers looking to eclipse their more established Yorkshire rivals by doubling up on the Knavesmire.