HE is the amateur jockey with one of the most high-profile and pressurised jobs in racing – the ride on reigning Cheltenham Gold Cup champion Long Run.
Yet Sam Waley-Cohen has already overcome so much adversity, such as the loss of his younger brother Thomas to cancer, that the abandonment of today’s high-profile Newbury meeting will not flummox him.
His chance is likely to come on Friday – a deal was struck last night between the BHA, Channel Four and Newbury to stage the top-class card, including the Betfair Denman Chase that was Long Run’s intended Gold Cup prep race, in six days’ time.
“In an ideal world, we would have liked to race, and we may still do, as there is a long gap between the King George on Boxing Day and the Gold Cup,” Waley-Cohen told the Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview after visiting the latest acquisition to his dental empire.
“If it doesn’t happen, it isn’t a disaster. Far worse things happen. I sat on him on Wednesday last week and he’s in great form. He feels well, but we did go straight from Kempton to Cheltenham last year.”
This has been a roller-coaster 12 months for the 29-year-old. There have been great highs – Long Run winning Cheltenham’s greatest prize; Oscar Time finishing second in the Grand National and his own wedding to party planner Annabel Ballin.
Then the setbacks – Oscar Time missing this year’s National due to injury, plus a series of unfortunate suspensions that were incurred at Fakenham and Taunton for riding and whip offences.
And then, of course, there’s Long Run whose two runs this season – in Haydock’s Betfair Chase and Kempton’s King George Chase – have ended in defeat to the seemingly ageless Kauto Star who was able to roll back the years under Ruby Walsh.
Waley-Cohen, however, is not perturbed. He points out that Gold Cups are won and lost in March – and that is when Long Run should be judged.
“On both occasions, we have been beaten by a horse, Kauto Star, who is one of the greatest of all-time. That is no disgrace,” he said.
“I also felt Long Run was closing on Kauto towards the end of both contests; that again is a good sign ahead of Cheltenham because we were not certain that he would stay up the finishing hill last year.
“At Haydock, Diamond Harry was well fancied for the Gold Cup. And Weird Al, the Charlie Hall winner. But we were a long way clear of them. Likewise the King George – the third horse, Captain Chris, is a former Arkle winner, and Somersby has gone on to win the Victor Chandler for Henrietta Knight. They’re not bad horses.
“Long Run has shown this year that he can jump really well, but when he is getting a bit tired, he can be a bit flat and go through the top of a fence. It’s something we’re working on, but nothing to worry about.”
Predictably these two defeats – and it could be that it simply took Kauto Star time to recover from a hideous fall in the 2010 Gold Cup – saw ‘armchair riders’ suggest that Waley-Cohen be replaced with a professional jockey, such as trainer Nicky Henderson’s retained rider Barry Geraghty or 16-time champion AP McCoy.
Such knee-jerk comments overlook the fact that Long Run is owned by Waley-Cohen’s father Robert, the current Cheltenham chairman, and he brought the French-bred chaser with the express intention of his son winning the Gold Cup.
And, as Waley-Cohen says, races can be won and lost by “split-second decisions”. Pointing out that his vantage point on horseback can be very different to the TV images, especially if riders are jockeying for position.
It is why there’s a difference between feedback from the likes of his father, Henderson and top jockeys – “people steeped in the sport” – and others who do not understand how Waley-Cohen balances a hectic business and social life with a gruelling fitness regime so that he can ride the likes of Long Run.
“I see no reason why we can’t win a second Gold Cup – and I think the owners of every other horse, with the possible exception of Kauto’s connections – would like to be in our position.”
As Henderson runs out of options for his batallion of Cheltenham entries, he received some better news after Kempton’s quickly-arranged National Hunt bumpers card beat the overnight snow.
Tetlami warmed up for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with a cosy victory while World Hurdle prospect Oscar Whisky won the finale. Henderson also confirmed that it is his intention to race Long Run at Newbury on Friday.
Yet National Hunt racing’s immediate prospects are, at best, uncertain – even though no problems are anticipated at Musselburgh today when it stages its Cheltenham Trials meeting that was abandoned last Sunday.
Today’s Uttoxeter and Warwick fixtures are off while tomorrow’s cards at Exeter and Hereford have to pass weekend inspections, though Southwell will stage an all weather card for NH horses.
Inspections also take place tomorrow at Catterick and Plumpton to determine prospects for Monday. However, to those in these parts who believe there is a Southern bias in the BHA’s efforts to restage Newbury’s card, they should remember this – the only jumping action this month has taken place at Newcastle, Ayr and, hopefully, Musselburgh today.