NO sport is more fickle than horse racing. Seven days ago, Sam Twiston-Davies was being hailed as a hero after he outbattled two of the all-time greats of the weighing room – Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty – to win Cheltenham’s prestigious International Hurdle on the unheralded Old Guard in a thrilling three-way finish.
Fast forward 24 hours and many of the self-same racing fans who were lauding the 23-year-old as the new AP McCoy were vilifying the young rider as he came off the JP McManus-owned Hawksmoor on the run-in at Southwell after clearing the last, the proverbial country mile clear of their nearest pursuer.
His journey from ‘hero to zero’ could not have been more rapid or soul-destroying. Yet what has been so disappointing, ahead of today’s Grade One JLT Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in which Twiston-Davies will be hoping to find some solace aboard the quirky Saphir Du Rheu, is the level of vitriol and personal abuse that has been meted out in the direction of this eminently personable and likable young rider.
There should be no place for it in sport – especially when the jockey apologised to connections so swiftly and with characteristic eloquence. This was not the crime of the century as some suggested; it was no different to Andy Murray losing his serve in a Grand Slam tennis match; England batsman Joe Root being bowled for 99 in a Test match or an England footballer missing a penalty in a major championship. These things happen.
Horses and jockeys are only a split second away from calamity and the disappointment is that the jockey’s never-say-die victory aboard the progressive Old Guard – the ride of a champion – was so overshadowed by the fallout from the Hawksmoor slip-up which, in turn, had come 48-hours after Twiston-Davies was unshipped when Politologue ducked to the right before the final flight at Cheltenham when about to make his challenge.
Yet Hawksmoor has always been a temperamental horse and Twiston-Davies would have expected his mount, trained to Paul Nicholls, to buck and swish his tail at the start rather than after the last.
Try keeping your balance on a bicycle, never mind a thoroughbred racehorse, when there is a sudden and unexpected movement.
“All the years I’ve been riding – I’ve fallen off on the Flat before when slipping on a bend – but never from the same incident twice in three days and you do start to think things through and say ‘what am I doing and why is it happening?’” said the rueful rider whose week did not get better when five fancied rides at Catterick on Tuesday all ended in defeat.
What was disturbing is that the abuse reached the point that Twiston-Davies had to shut down communication on his mobile phone and through social media outlets – this is a sportsman whose boyish enthusiasm is as infectious today as it was in April 2010 when he spoke to this correspondent just days before riding Hello Bud to a fifth place finish in Aintree’s Grand National.
From a family steeped in horse racing, his father Nigel has trained winners of the Grand National and Gold Cup, this sport is Twiston-Davies’s life and all the jockey has done is get stronger, and better, since those formative days five years ago when a trip to Wetherby was an adventure rather than a job.
Fortunately racing remains his passion.
Yet if the jockey loses his rapport with racegoers, owners and trainers – there is a natural warmth to Twiston-Davies who remains mature beyond his tender years – he will not be half the rider that he has become. His rise to prominence was so meritorious that it became inevitable, after conjuring a memorable win out of Tidal Bay in the 2013 West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby, that he would become stable jockey to the aforementioned Nicholls in April 2014 in succession to Ruby Walsh, the greatest big race rider bar none.
In 18 months, he’s already proved himself more than capable of holding down the most pressurised and demanding job in National Hunt racing – yesterday’s Ascot win on the Nicholls-trained Le Mercurey was a redemptive confidence-booster, even though it came at the expense of Harry Skelton’s Amore Alato who came to grief at the last when leading narrowly.
Perhaps this bodes well when Saphir Du Rheu – a top-class chaser who has been switched back to the smaller obstacles – takes on the rapidly improving Thistlecrack in today’s feature.
“My only concern would this be too quick after having a hard run in the Hennessy, but he had a hard race in the World Hurdle then went and won at Aintree,” said Nicholls. “He is much straighter and lighter than he was before the Hennessy. As he was walking around before the Hennessy he looked a few kilos heavier. He will probably still make a good staying chaser, but it does them no harm to mix it up.”
Yet Paul Nicholls, just like Sam Twiston-Davies, realises that the only certainty in racing is its glorious uncertainty – even more so after such an up and down week.