“WHO is this child?” The reaction of racehorse owner John Cotton was an inauspicious one when he saw the baby-faced rider Sean Bowen ride his steeplechaser Mon Parrain at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.
Yet it is indicative of the rise to prominence of this 17-year-old riding sensation that he is to ride in tomorrow’s Crabbie’s Grand National on the horse that the proud Yorkshire businessman owns with his wife Barbara.
If horse and rider are first past the post in tomorrow’s wide open renewal, Bowen will become the second-youngest jockey to win the world’s greatest steeplechase in the 186-year history of the race – he is three months senior to Bruce Hobbs who prevailed on Battleship in 1938.
It does not end here. The talented teenager only became eligible for the Aintree showpiece last Saturday when he rode Virak to victory at Haydock – National jockeys must have at least 10 steeplechase wins to their name – and Bowen’s 39 rivals will include last year’s Scottish National winner Al Co who is trained in deepest Wales by his proud parents Peter and Karen. “I don’t know who I will be shouting for the most!” said Bowen senior last night.
Such a scenario is not beyond the bounds of possibility, given the National’s reputation through the ages for producing the most unlikely of fairytale finishes.
For, while Mon Parrain is the outsider of the four horses being saddled by champion trainer Paul Nicholls, the French-bred nine-year-old does have appealing credentials.
He finished second in the 2011 Crabbies Topham Chase over the National fences on his second start in Britain – jockey Ruby Walsh was so taken with the performance that he advised connections to consider a tilt at the biggest horse race in the world – before completing the course in last December’s Becher Chase.
And then there is the Bowen factor – and his remarkable 25-1 win at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day when the Cotton family did not even travel to the Cotswolds track from their Harrogate home to see their horse. It was the ride of a jockey with years of experience.
“It would have been the perfect start to the year if we had been there to witness it,” Mr Cotton told The Yorkshire Post.
“He was 25-1 and we thought Paul had put a child on Mon Parrain.
“We were watching it on television and Sean rode a fantastic race – we were thrilled. The horse’s previous two runs last year had been pretty poor and Paul put blinkers on for the first time for New Year’s Day, and they worked the trick.
“As it was New Year’s Day, I phoned up his father Peter and said that I would like to buy Sean something as a ‘thank you’. He suggested that we bought a couple of photographs of the race because it was Sean’s first at Cheltenham, and that is what we did.
“He is the leading conditional this season with good reason.
“He’s been riding since an early age and he is a great talent going forward.”
The statistics back this up. Prior to yesterday’s action, the teenager’s 10 rides this week had yielded six winners – trebles at Haydock and Chepstow – as well as two second-place finishes, a third and a fourth.
On the 40-winner mark for the current campaign, and boasting a strike-rate of 19 per cent, he has eased clear of Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning jockey Nico de Boinville in the race to be top conditional.
Few are surprised by the progress that Bowen has made – even though he only recently passed his driving test. He’s spent most of his life travelling the country in horseboxes with his parents, although he was allergic to horses in younger years because of eczema.
After a stint in the pony racing circuit and in point-to-points, this rising star rode a winner on his first start under National Hunt rules as an amateur on Kozmina Bay at Uttoxeter in December 2013. Bowen turned professional at the beginning of this season, leaving home and moving to the Nicholls stable in Somerset where he has grown in stature as both a rider – and a person.
The trainer admitted yesterday that Bowen will be among those challenging for the jockeys’ title in the post-AP McCoy era and it speaks volumes that Mr Cotton had no qualms about booking the jockey for a potentially life-changing ride – he knows, from his experience of business, about the importance of investing in the future.
He runs the Mirfield-based John Cotton Group which employs 1,000 people. Europe’s largest manufacturer of pillows and duvets, the firm supplies many of the country’s leading high street retailers and is preparing to celebrate its centenary next year.
“When I got to 60, I thought it was important that I had some leisure time,” said Mr Cotton, whose horses have included 2008 Munster National winner Dear Villez and Golden Flight who was a first-fence faller in the 2009 National.
“I bought one or two horses and have been lucky to have quite a few winners. Ruby Walsh rode Mon Parrain in the 2011 Topham and he said that we ought to run this horse in the National.
“We are hoping he will run a good race and it will be good for Sean. We have horses with Paul because of his attention to detail and work ethic.
“He doesn’t want to be second. He’s very dedicated and very good at his job.”
They are words that also apply to Sean Bowen, the boy wonder who has earned a Grand National ride on merit.