JOHN Francome has credited the burgeoning pony racing circuit for the emergence of a new generation of fearless young riders headed by 16-year-old Welsh Grannd National-winning jockey James Bowen.
The eight-times champion jockey, whose many big-race successes included the 1983 Chepstow marathon on Jenny Pitman’s future Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Burrough Hill Lad, is in awe of Bowen and his older brother Sean.
Speaking exclusively to The Yorkshire Post, Francome said Bowen’s winning ride on Gavin Cromwell’s veteran 13-year-old horse Raz De Maree – holding the horse up before challenging in the long home straight – would have been lauded if it had been executed by a more experienced jockey.
“It’s remarkable for a first-season rider but he’s had a couple of hundred rides in pony races. That’s the difference,” says Francome, as racing basks in the glory of the oldest ever horse winning the Welsh National with the youngest jockey in the race’s illustrious history.
“He’s a really good rider and his brother is riding even better. They are a credit to their parents Peter and Karen who travelled the length of the country to give their boys the opportunities. They’re a lovely family, I couldn’t be happier for them.”
Francome, 65, and president of the Injured Jockeys Fund, is still regarded by many as one of the most accomplished National Hunt riders of all time thanks, in no small part, to his tutelage with the legendary Fred Winter after starting out with a “milk round, which used to be done with a horse and cart” in his home town of Swindon.
Yet, while he says his apprenticeship could not have served him any better, it would have required a sporting freak to win such big races at such a tender age. As he noted when he joined the Winter yard as a 16-year-old: “It was on my first morning.
“He’d asked me to muck a few horses out and I decided to take a radio down to keep myself entertained. When I turned it on the bloody thing I was looking after bolted. Suddenly there were six loose horses charging around the yard. I got my first of many bollockings.”
Not only has pony racing helped James and Sean Bowen who are attached to the rival yards of Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls respectively, but Ireland’s teenage sensation Jack Kennedy did likewise.
And Francome is impressed by the maturity of a number of young riders who are showing that they have to be totally professional at all times. “There have been a lot of incredible performances,” he added.
“Harry Cobden has been riding out of his skin and won the Grade One on Politologue; Ruan Day spoke brilliantly after winning the big race at Cheltenham on Guitar Pete and Callum Bewley never got the credit he deserved for his win on New Year’s Day at Musselburgh,” he added. “There are a lot of good lads coming through. It’s brilliant, they’re TV-savvy and come across really well and will be even more hungry following James’s success.
“He probably couldn’t go any faster early on so he assessed the race and took his time. Horses jump well for him and he – and his brother – are real stars in the making.
“They’re so different to my time.
“My dad wasn’t a rider himself – nobody in our family was – but he was quite interested in racing, and he knew that Fred Winter didn’t have any sons, so he wouldn’t be looking to give them rides.”
Meanwhile, trainer Harry Whittington has earmarked the Betfred Eider Chase at Newcastle on February 24 as potential next port of call for staying chaser Vinnie Lewis.
It follows the gallant seven-year-old’s victory in the Sussex National at Plumpton under North Yorkshire-born jockey Harry Bannister, another young rider to follow. Next season’s Welsh National could be the long-term target.
Doncaster’s National Hunt meeting today is subject to a further inspection at 7am.
Clerk of the course Roderick Duncan called an initial check for 3pm yesterday as the track is frozen in places.
Conditions have improved considerably through Monday but a further inspection is required.