IT IS nearly five years since Nico de Boinville received a chance phone call that was to change his racing life and would lead to a historic Cheltenham Gold Cup win in 2015 on the novice steeplechaser Coneygree.
Now his big race CV is second to none – a stirring Queen Mother Champion Chase win on Sprinter Sacre, dual Grade One success last year with staying chaser Might Bite, and the likelihood that Altior will be the horse of the 2017-18 campaign.
Yet, as de Boinville heads to Wetherby to ride 2015 Cheltenham hero Coneygree in a stellar renewal of the bet365 Charlie Hall Chase, jump racing’s early-season £100,000 highlight, he is now a fully-fledged top-ranking jockey in his own right.
Contrast this with December 2012 when he made the long journey to deepest west Wales on Boxing Day as an unproven amateur jockey best known at the time for riding Nicky Henderson’s superstar Sprinter Sacre on the gallops.
The trip to Ffos Las paid off. He won on Carruthers and a follow-up victory six weeks later in the West Wales National cemented a relationship that would kickstart Hampshire-born de Boinville’s career after swapping a politics degree – he lasted six weeks at Newcastle University – for a more rewarding, and satisfying, career in racing.
Both Carruthers, a one-time Hennessy hero, and Coneygree were bred by the late Lord Oaksey – he acquired the dam Plaid Maid in his twilight years for a bargain £3,000 without envisaging the success that would follow for his daughter Sara Bradstock and her husband Mark, who nurtured these two warriors at their small stables in Oxfordshire.
“The Bradstocks were looking for a 7lb claimer to ride Carruthers at Ffos Las to take a bit of weight off his back,” de Boinville, 28, told The Yorkshire Post.
“He won on Boxing Day, and then the West Wales National, and the relationship was started from there.
“They are truly brilliant people. They call a spade a spade. They’re a small team, but it works because they can give all their horses the attention that they deserve. Coneygree is not the easiest horse to keep in one piece because his rear legs are so long – it’s not the easiest job in the world.
“Yet they manage it year in and year out. To get him back for Punchestown in April, where he was second to this year’s Gold Cup winner Sizing John, was amazing.
“When you’re in there every day, you see what they have to do to keep the horse sound. He comes first. He’s put together in a certain way that gives him an amazing engine, but gives him problems here and there.”
First jockey to the aforementioned Henderson, who happily released his rider to partner Coneygree, de Boinville believes the experience of riding in Grade One contests served him well when it came to even higher-profile successes like Sprinter Sacre’s scintillating Champion Chase win in March 2016.
However, he still has to pinch himself that he was in the saddle when Coneygree became the first novice since 1974 hero Captain Christy to win the blue riband Gold Cup. When did he think the front-runner could win?
“On the first circuit with two fences to go,” he said. “I thought, ‘If we’re going this well on the second lap, we’ll have a right shout’.
“I was still a conditional rider and I’m on this novice in the Gold Cup. Over the last, head down, keep driving. It was a very, very special day. I had to ride in the boys’ race an hour later. It was staggering, but wonderful.”
Coneygree’s syndicate of owners include Lord Oaksey’s widow Chicky. She will not be at Wetherby – she is due to be at Ascot selling merchandise for the Injured Jockeys Fund that was inspired by her late husband. A nervous watcher. “If his legs weren’t so long, he would have been a very, very good horse,” she said.
That said, the lightly-raced Coneygree is in receipt of weight from multiple Grade One winner Cue Card and Yorkshire’s Definitly Red. He has been schooled by de Boinville over easy-fix fences that the Bradstocks built on their all-weather gallop to protect their stable star’s fragile legs.
“The Bradstocks have done an amazing job,” added the rider. “Hopefully they will have him back to his best.”