IT has taken time, perhaps slightly longer than he hoped, but Nico de Boinville is now firmly established as one of Britain’s best young jockeys.
A breakthrough Grade One win on top novice chaser Coneygree, bred by the late Lord Oaksey, is testament to his prowess in the saddle as the 25-year-old heads to Haydock today to ride the Queen’s Close Touch for his boss Nicky Henderson.
But de Boinville is also the horseman entrusted with riding Sprinter Sacre, Britain’s most popular racehorse, on the gallops everyday as steeplechasing’s superstar prepares to make his eagerly-awaited comeback in today’s Sodexo Clarence House Chase at Ascot after a year-long absence from the track because of a well-documented fibrillating heart.
He is likely to be on the M6 driving back to Lambourn when Sprinter Sacre returns to the fray at 3pm in this prestigious Grade One contest.
It means the jockey will be relying on the distinctive spine-tingling commentary of John Hunt on BBC 5 live for word that this great two-mile champion has retained his exhilarating flamboyance and is still the horse of old before a laboured performance at Kempton on December 27, 2013, when pulled up by Barry Geraghty. This remains the only defeat in Sprinter Sacre’s otherwise imperious 11 starts over fences.
Yet, as the rider who knows this equine warrior best of all, de Boinville is hopeful that the nine-year-old can beat his four rivals headed by the Paul Nicholls-trained Dodging Bullets, winner of last month’s Grade One Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown.
However, the readings from the heart monitor, attached to Sprinter Sacre when working at home, are encouraging.
“We both started at the same time. I arrived at Nicky’s and was allocated Sprinter Sacre,” de Boinville told The Yorkshire Post. “I didn’t realise he would be this good.
“He then won at Ascot first time out and ‘the Boss’ is often reluctant to change a winning formula. We’ve had our ups and downs in the past year, but I am hopeful Sprinter will bounce back. He is flying and in great form. He is in the shape you want him to be in and raring to go. He is a big imposing horse, but he also has character and presence. He’s the complete athlete.
“When he schooled before racing at Newbury the other week, I was on the lead horse and Barry was on Sprinter. Just before the off, he turned to me and said ‘You’ll need to go a good clip because he’s feeling very, very well’.
“When he took off at the open ditch, that was the Sprinter Sacre of the old. That was what he was like before his problems. It was a good sign. The Boss wouldn’t let him run unless he thought he should, although I am likely to be on the M6 heading home.”
Though the atmosphere in de Boinville’s car will be tense, it will not match the extraordinary emotions that he experienced in the Punchestown weighing room in May 2013 when Sprinter Sacre won the hearts of Ireland by winning the Boylesports.com Champion Chase at the end of a gruelling season.
The horse’s last win prior to the trauma of Kempton, Henderson’s hero had already won Cheltenham’s Queen Mother Champion Chase and Aintree’s Melling Chase before becoming the first horse, since the legendary Istabraq, to win Grade One races at the three major racing festivals in the same season.
“It was my best time,” disclosed de Boinville. “I was riding in one of the Bumpers and it was a great atmosphere.
“The Irish were cheering and it was something to be part of.
“It’s great when you put on Sky Sports News and see your horse making headlines for the right reasons.”
Despite describing his family’s name as “old French”, de Boinville was born and brought up in North Hampshire where horses were an integral part of his childhood.
“My aunt is married to Patrick Chamings, the trainer. When you’re very young and surrounded by racehorses, speed is something you want to get involved with,” he said.
After de Boinville’s parents implored their son to complete his A-levels – this cerebral individual studied history, politics and English literature – he spent a gap year with trainer Richard Gibson in Chantilly before heading to Newcastle University to begin a history and politics degree. His studies lasted a diligent six weeks before the speed and adrenaline of horse racing took over.
“I sat down with a few people and asked their advice on where to go to,” he added.
“They all said Nicky Henderson’s was the best place.
“One of the biggest yards in the country, and with exciting young horses, you are either going to make it – or not.
“It is a sink or swim thing. It took me a long time to get going and for the penny to drop.
“You can be a horseman, but you also need to be a jockey to race-ride. I was lucky enough to win a Listed race at Sandown in December 2012 on Petit Robin, which was a massive help.
“It helped to propel me forward.”
The conditional rider has not looked back.
After recording 27 winners in the 2013-14 campaign, he’s already notched up 21 successes this season at a career-best strike-rate of 19 per cent.
He also has the scope to ride out one morning a week for outside trainers, hence the association with Coneygree, who is trained by the late Lord Oaksey’s daughter Sarah Bradstock and her husband Mark in deepest Oxfordshire.
The jockey won the 2013 West Wales National at Ffos Las on the former Hennessy hero Carruthers before partnering Coneygree to his two novice chase wins this season – the Fullers’ London Pride Novices’ Chase at Newbury in late November and then the Grade One Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
This was the race when many of the well-regarded market rivals came to grief as they struggled to match Coneygree’s relentless pace. “When you are riding from the front, all you hear is the sound of the birch behind you,” he said. “I didn’t have a clue until I had a quick look around. I did try to take the moment in. You don’t know how often days like this will come around.”
Tougher tests await at the RSA Chase – the three-mile novice chase championship at the Cheltenham Festival promises to be one of the races of the blue riband meeting if Coneygree lines up against the likes of Kings Palace and Don Poli.
A rider better known for his association on the Lambourn gallops with Sprinter Sacre than his own success as a jockey, Nico de Boinville hopes to continue making headlines in his own name.
His feet are also firmly stuck on terra firma, despite his association with one of the all-time great horses.
“For now I am focused on what I am doing,” he added. “You can’t have a Plan B in this game. If you do, you’re not giving the job all you can. I’m improving by the season and I am just trying to enjoy it.”
And, like so many, hoping that Sprinter Sacre is back to his brilliant best. Today is the day.
Geraghty has high hopes for Ascot success
BIG race jockey Barry Geraghty is “extremely hopeful” the brilliant Sprinter Sacre will show his true colours in today’s Sodexo Clarence House Chase at Ascot.
With numerous heart tests, hours of work on the gallops and a crucial racecourse gallop and school at Newbury now under his belt, Sprinter Sacre is ready for his return after pulling up at Kempton in December 2013.
“It’s only natural that there will be some apprehension given the heart problems Sprinter encountered,” the jockey wrote on his At The Races blog.
“While I’m sure everyone will breathe a large sigh of relief if all goes well, I’m in a very positive frame of mind.
“We’ll let Sprinter do the talking with his performance but he wouldn’t be going for this race if the signs weren’t right. As for his fitness on the ground, well, he’s been on the go for most of the time since his problem and, while I’m certain the race will sharpen him up, I’m sure he’s in a position to do himself justice.
“I couldn’t fault him when he schooled and then worked at Newbury recently when it seemed like the Sprinter Sacre of old was back with us. I’m extremely hopeful that will be the case at Ascot and he can retake his place at steeplechasing’s top table.”