PRESSURE is a word that young jockey Sam Twiston-Davies will not countenance ahead of two of the Cheltenham Festival’s highest-profile rides this week.
His father Nigel’s The New One is vying for favouritism for tomorrow’s Stan James Champion Hurdle, while the legendary Big Buck’s will provide one of the National Hunt Festival’s defining moments of its 103-year history if this equine superstar wins an unprecedented fifth Ladbrokes World Hurdle on Thursday.
Yet there are two reasons why such great horses have been entrusted to this engaging 21-year-old – his horsemanship and his unflappability.
“To have a lot of solid chances is absolutely brilliant,” Twiston-Davies told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “Pressure? I just take it all in, soak it up. It’s kind of who I am. You can’t let it get on top of you. I am in a very privileged position. I am just going to enjoy it. If you do your very best, no one can criticise you.”
They are characteristically mature words from a young man whose first experience of the Festival only came five years ago when he rode Irish Raptor in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup for amateur riders, a race won for Yorkshire by John Quinn’s Character Building.
Unlike Bryan Cooper, his fellow young gun from across the Irish Sea, skipping lessons in Cheltenham week was not straight-forward – Twiston-Davies hails from the Cotswolds spa town. “If you disappeared for a few days, it would have looked suspicious.”
There was no stopping the teenager the following year. Then 17, he was in a position to miss A-level classes so he could take the winning ride on the frontrunning Baby Run in the Christie’s Foxhunter Chase just 40 minutes after his father’s Imperial Commander beat Denman and Kauto Star in a vintage Gold Cup.
The ginger-haired rider was still a slip of a lad when he rode Hello Bud to a fifth-place finish in the 2010 Grand National after leading the race, famously won by AP McCoy’s Don’t Push It, until the closing stages.
Yet, while some did not even recognise the fresh-faced jockey scuttling around with an ever-present smile as he saddled his horses and walked the track, it was, in fact, an intrinsic part of his racing education – both Twiston-Davies and his younger brother Willy, now stable jockey to Flat trainer Mick Channon, were taught at an early age by their father and chain-smoking mother Cathy to take personal responsibility for their careers.
There would be no special favours – they would have to earn rides on merit and Twiston-Davies achieved this when he became champion conditional and succeeded Paddy Brennan as his father’s No 1 rider while still aged in his teens.
His progress has been as rapid as The New One’s rise to ascendancy. A Bumper winner at Warwick in 2011, the horse – “the best” to reside at the Twiston-Davies stable – came of age when winning the Grade One Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle 12 months ago.
Horse and rider then landed a second Grade One at Cheltenham last December before losing out to My Tent Or Yours, one of tomorrow’s rivals, in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day – the steady pace, and final sprint to the line, did not bring The New One’s stamina into play.
“He had a little jump the other morning and schooled nicely,” reported Twiston-Davies. “He takes everything in his stride and he’s a pleasure to have around. I’m not sure if there’s going to be a stiff pace – but that’s going to inconvenience everyone, including Hurricane Fly who has won two very tactical races in Ireland and is the one I fear. The New One, he was unlucky at Kempton. It maybe a different story if you run that race again.”
This is the type of attention to detail that saw Twiston-Davies come to the attention of former champion trainer Paul Nicholls, a relationship that began at Wetherby’s Charlie Hall meeting when the ever-popular – and even more quirky – Tidal Bay prevailed in an epic bet365 Hurdle.
This is a partnership that also withstood the pressure – and post-race scrutiny bordering on the hysterical – when Big Buck’s was narrowly beaten in the Cheltenham’s Cleeve Hurdle following a 14-month injury lay-off.
Those surprised when Twiston-Davies was chosen ahead of 2012 Grand National-winning Daryl Jacob, stable jockey at Ditcheat, for the ride were then critical of the young rider taking up the running too soon on Big Buck’s.
However, the jockey offered a totally different perspective ahead of Thursday’s clash with the unbeaten Irish mare Annie Power, who will not only be in receipt of seven pounds but will be ridden by Ruby Walsh – the jockey who rode Big Buck’s to his four Cheltenham victories before retiring to his native Ireland.
“He ran an absolute blinder,” said Twiston-Davies. “There were three things I wanted to do. Big Buck’s to come out of the race well and Mr Nicholls and Mr Stewart (Andy Stewart, owner) to be happy. He should have a massive chance.
“I grew up watching Big Buck’s and he was amazing to watch. He’s even more amazing to ride. The energy he gives you through the reins, he is just effortless. He just got tired from the back of the last, but he’ll come on for that. Riding horses like The New One and Big Buck’s, it’s one of the best positions to be in. I’m loving every moment of it.”
And Sam Twiston-Davies will continue to do so.