THERE is no hint of nerves – or pressure – in Sam Waley-Cohen’s voice as he prepares to silence his critics by regaining the King George VI Chase, steeplechasing’s premier mid-season race, on the remarkably consistent Long Run.
Unlike his illustrious rivals in Boxing Day’s premier race, Waley-Cohen is an amateur rider – one of the great Corinthians who is riding his father Robert’s horse of a lifetime because of the family’s enduring love of National Hunt racing.
It is why the 30-year-old City entrepreneur, criticised by some for Long Run losing his King George and Cheltenham Gold Cup title last season, is totally unfazed by those who believe that the French-bred chaser should be ridden by a jockey of the calibre of 17-times champion AP McCoy.
“It’s all about having fun, not earning a living,” racing’s bon viveur told the Yorkshire Post. “If you can’t look forward to riding the favourite in the King George, you shouldn’t be doing it.
“As defending champion last year, there was a lot of pressure – and the small matter of the greatest horse since Arkle in Kauto Star. This year, we’re going to Kempton with confidence. If it works out, it will be fantastic. If not, it will be disappointing – of course it will – but worse things will have happened to us.”
His younger brother Thomas’s death from cancer in 2004, after a decade-long struggle, means this is a racing family bringing a perspective to sport that their critics, both in racing and from punters, fail to properly comprehend if Long Run is defeat.
A jockey who likened his Gold Cup triumph in 2011 to “being a decent tennis player and you end up playing for real on Centre Court at Wimbledon”, it is naive to dismiss Waley-Cohen as a rider who is amateur in comparison to his big race rivals who ride as professionals.
This is an accomplished horseman who has won races over Aintree’s fearsome Grand National fences on the mare Liberthine and who followed up Long Run’s crowning moment at Cheltenham by finishing an admirable second in the world’s greatest steeplechase on Oscar Time – just two-and-a-half lengths separated the runner-up from the winner Ballabriggs.
Yet, as Waley-Cohen prepares for the first King George since 2005 that will not feature the incomparable five-time hero Kauto Star, he will draw inspiration from his very first race around Kempton aboard Long Run.
The date? Boxing Day 2009. The contest? The Grade One Feltham Novices Chase for future champions. The significance? Long Run demolished Keith Reveley’s Tazbar, potentially one of Yorkshire’s best horses for a decade, by a soul-destroying 13 lengths.
“We’ve both improved – in every way,” he said. “I watched the race again last week and he was novicey, very keen and was a right handful.
“You could see his French-style of jumping – he was a bit low, but this was only his first run since coming to Britain. He also pulled like a train, which you do not want in the big races.
“For me, I am only riding 40 races a year and the Feltham was three years ago. I’ve got another 100 rides under my belt and that has made a real difference.”
There are two other factors, says Waley-Cohen, which mean that he goes into this year’s race with far more confidence than 12 months ago when the critics were sharpening their knives – or keyboard skills in the case of those racing writers and ‘armchair jockeys’ who were not prepared to give Long Run’s pilot the benefit of the doubt.
First, the jockey’s business, Portman Healthcare, is thriving. It has just acquired its 15th dental practice – the latest acquisition being in Hereford, a town now mourning the closure of its racecourse a week ago.
“Racing is all about confidence,” he says. “And you want as many things as possible to be going well in your life.”
Second, Waley-Cohen – a close acquaintance of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – is far more tactically aware about how to ride Kempton – the need to be prominent, while also conserving energy for the final three fences in the relatively short home straight that will determine the King George’s outcome.
The margins are small. Take the last two runnings of Haydock’s Betfair Chase. Twelve months ago, Long Run was a leg-weary eight lengths adrift of Kauto Star after the Paul Nicholls-trained champion rolled back the years with a mesmeric round of jumping.
This year, Long Run – so easy to spot with the Waley-Cohen’s chocolate brown and orange silks – was beaten by just over two lengths by the Nicholls-trained Silviniaco Conti, who franked the form of his victory in Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase.
“I thought it was a very good comeback race for all sorts of reasons. Last year, I believe that Long Run left his King George and Gold Cup at Haydock because he got sucked into a very hard race with Kauto Star, and fair play to the Nicholls team for that training performance. You can only admire them for it”, says Waley-Cohen.
“This year we were accused of being too patient – too conservative – but we ran into Silviniaco Conti who is a very good horse and who had enjoyed the benefit of a prep run. He’s now being put away for the Gold Cup, but it was not as hard a race as the previous year.
“Going further back into the form book, he’s never been out of the first three in 11 races in this country – and his defeats have been against some of the very best horses like Kauto Star or Synchronised in this year’s Gold Cup when AP McCoy was just inspired.
“He’s maintained a remarkable level of consistency For me, that is all one can ask for – for the horse to give his very best.”
The likely heavy going at Kempton, another plus for Long Run, has already seen the withdrawal of Sizing Europe and Sir Des Champs – two of Ireland’s premier steeplechasers – while Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Finian’s Rainbow was another to be pulled out over the weekend.
Like Long Run, he is trained by Nicky Henderson, who still saddles Ryanair Chase winner Riverside Theatre.
“He’s the forgotten horse,” says Waley-Cohen. “He was second to us in the 2010 King George when Kauto made a bad mistake – and then won the Ryanair. There will be no team tactics, all the owners want to win the race.
“Cue Card for the Tizzard family is very talented, but his best form is over two miles, while Grands Crus could run a huge race if his wind operation has been successful.
“The exciting thing about these young horses coming through, and last season’s novice form is outstanding, is whether they can make the step up to a King George or Gold Cup. But, if Long Run is in the form that he showed two years ago, then he will take a lot of beating. I can’t wait.”