“HAVE I ’eck as like”. Jockey Joe Colliver’s Yorkshire accent is clearly discernible when asked if he has ever had a winner at Cheltenham.
That record will change today if Sam Spinner justifies favouritism in the Grade One Sun Bet Stayers’ Hurdle, one of the most open races of Festival week.
Not only would victory represent Sheffield-born Colliver’s finest hour in the saddle, but it would be a remarkable triumph over adversity for the horse’s Middleham trainer Jedd O’Keeffe who has fought – and beaten – throat and neck cancer.
However, while Colliver and O’Keeffe might not be two of racing’s more fashionable names competing for high stakes this week, their handling of Sam Spinner – owned by Harrogate businessman Paul Chapman and his wife Caron – has been exemplary.
A gutsy second at Chepstow was followed by a wide-margin win at Haydock last November before Colliver’s charge made all to land Ascot’s Grade One Long Walk Hurdle the following month, a coming-of-age win for horse, trainer and jockey.
While others might have regarded the weight of public expectation as a handicap ahead of today’s three-mile contest they have embraced the media and public interest in a horse that cost a bargain £12,000 from Doncaster Sales.
I don’t really feel the pressure. I’m very laid back. I got a bit nervous schooling him the other day on Middleham’s gallops because it was so close to Cheltenham and I didn’t want anything to go wrong.Joe Colliver
Colliver, who started riding ponies in his garden when three years old, is wonderfully understated as he talks about a potentially career-defining day. He has had one ride at Sedgefield. It failed to finish. Yet he did have time to watch Ruby Walsh, Cheltenham’s most successful rider, win the Arkle Trophy on Footpad with a remarkably patient ride of horsemanship after a shuddering early error.
“He rides Cheltenham well, doesn’t he?” remarks Colliver, 26, who was speaking before the luckless Walsh suffered a suspected broken leg which means he misses the ride on Bacardys.
“It’s nice to go there, but even better to be going there with a chance especially if we get the rain that is forecast. Going there on the back of two wins, and a second at Chepstow, which was a good run too, it’s definitely a good thing.
“I don’t really feel the pressure. I’m very laid back. I got a bit nervous schooling him the other day on Middleham’s gallops because it was so close to Cheltenham and I didn’t want anything to go wrong. I’ll probably get a bit nervous when I get there (Cheltenham) and go down the chute out onto the racecourse and canter down to the start.”
Colliver’s pre-occupation in the build up to the race has been staying fit – injuries are an occupational hazard – rather than fretting about a field that includes horses of the calibre of Jessica Harrington’s Irish Champion Hurdle hero Supasundae and Festival regular The New One, who represents ever popular Cheltenham-based trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies and his son Sam.
But as the aforementioned Walsh observed last month, it is Sam Spinner who has the best form of all after seeing off allcomers at Ascot because of the telepathy that clearly exists between horse and rider. They click.
“It’s just his attitude. He doesn’t waste energy. He’s very economical. He’s got a big stride on him and covers the ground. It’s so easy for him,” the jockeys tells The Yorkshire Post. “If it rains, and we get the heavy ground we had at Haydock, I’d be quietly confident.
“I’ll line up to go. If someone wants to go quicker than me, so be it, because I’ll just let Sam Spinner do what he wants when he wants. It’s worked so far.”
Colliver’s journey to Cheltenham is an unusual one.
“My dad was a security guard, my mum rode horses before she had me and my sister, but I don’t really know how we came to getting a pony,” he said. “It kind of turned up in the back garden one day. When I first sat on it I kicked it in the belly, it set off and I fell straight off the back of it.”
Colliver, who excelled at horseball, a fast-paced mixture of polo and rugby, went to the Northern Racing College after leaving school with no qualifications.
From there he joined Micky Hammond’s Middleham yard where he has progressed through the ranks while, at the same time. building links with O’Keeffe and his wife Andrea, who also stood by the jockey when he was jailed in 2016 for drink driving.
While Colliver has previous experience of the Cheltenham Festival thanks to Hammond’s Just Cameron, who was sixth to the legendary Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, they were outsiders enjoying the experience.
Now Sam Spinner carries the hopes of the North as jump racing’s revival in these parts continue.
“There are a lot of Northerners going down for the day,” adds Colliver.
“He’s a Northern horse doing it for the North – it’s great so many people are behind him. As long as he comes back safe and sound.”