James Bowen aiming to ride into Grand National history

Eyes on the prize: James Bowen will bid to become the youngest winner of the Grand National next weekend when he rides Shantou Flyer.
Eyes on the prize: James Bowen will bid to become the youngest winner of the Grand National next weekend when he rides Shantou Flyer.
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JAMES Bowen is unfazed by the prospect of breaking an 80-year record if he becomes the youngest winner of the Grand National next weekend.

The youngest rider to win the Welsh National when Raz De Mee prevailed at Chepstow in January, he is taking the big race build-up in his stride as he prepares to ride Shantou Flyer.

Raz De Maree and James Bowen win the Welsh National.

Raz De Maree and James Bowen win the Welsh National.

“It’s all good, going well,” the riding phenomenon tells The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview which reveals a quiet and calm professionalism that belies his youth.

If Shantou Flyer, runner-up at last month’s Cheltenham Festival wins, Bowen, who turned 17 last month, will beat the record set by Bruce Hobbs on the American-owned Battleship in 1938 by two months.

It was said, after Battleship’s narrow victory, that “no rider has created a greater stir than has young Hobbs” who had turned professional immediately after his 16th birthday.

At least he had the experience of riding in the 1937 race. Bowen has yet to ride over the unique fences – he only turned professional last summer and his first winner came in late May at Cartmel on Curious Carlos.

It’s great to have a ride in my first year riding – and an outside ride. It’s a big thing. You grow up watching a race like the National.

James Bowen

While the current comparisons with the record-breaking AP McCoy are unfair despite being well-meant, the Welsh-born rider heads to Merseyside on merit.

Though his parents Peter and Karen are successful trainers in Pembrokeshire and Bowen is a conditional jockey at champion trainer Nicky Henderson’s yard, he is particularly proud that Shantou Flyer is an outside ride.

It means, he says, others – like the horse’s trainer, Richard Hobson – are pleased to use Bowen, who will be crowned the 2017-18 champion conditional later this month and break a record set by his older brother Sean in 2015.

“Shantou Flyer ran at Cheltenham at the New Year meeting and I picked up the ride. He had top weight and they wanted to claim off him,” says Bowen, who will be unable to utilise this three-pound weight allowance in the National.

Raz De Maree and James Bowen win the Welsh National at Chepstow.

Raz De Maree and James Bowen win the Welsh National at Chepstow.

“He was second then. He was then second at Kelso and then second at Cheltenham last month when he was giving a stone to Coo Star Sivola and Lizzie Kelly. He kept going all the way to the line, which is good for Aintree.

“I’d like to think he has a chance in the National. He’s six pounds well in because he’s gone up in the ratings for his Cheltenham run. He travels well and he jumped well in the race last year until he was hampered and pulled up.

“It’s brilliant to even get a ride in the race. It would be great to win it. It’s great to have a ride in my first year riding – and an outside ride. It’s a big thing. You grow up watching a race like the National.”

Bowen is no stranger to Aintree. He was there in 2007 when his father’s McKelvey was runner-up to Silver Birch. “It was gutting at the time but we had a good party afterwards. It’s a great memory of the race to have,” he recalls.

Even then, he had not ridden a horse. Yet it was not long before his prodigious talent became clear on the pony racing circuit that is credited with producing a generation of young riders.

He, and his two brothers, would travel the length of the country for races from their Pembrokeshire stables, soaking up insight and information from all those he encountered.

His parents are friends with Yorkshire show-jumping legend Harvey Smith and his wife Sue who will be rivals next weekend.

“A great rider,” says Bowen, who has watched the recordings of Smith. He is certainly more diligent with his riding homework than he was during his all-too-brief school days.

“I left school when I was 14, I think. We didn’t go very often, none of us,” says Bowen who, like his brothers, were told by their parents, born grafters, to work hard and make every minute count in their racing careers.

They have done so. The youngest Bowen’s priority each morning is to study the next day’s entries and then arrange transport to the races. He is so young, and so busy, that he is still awaiting his provisional driving licence.

He speaks after a day at Henderson’s yard riding out some of the country’s top horses before evening stables where he was mucking out, brushing the horses in his charge and sweeping up.

On the 49-winner mark for the year, there is no chance of him shirking his responsibilities or fame going to his head. On the weight of expectation, he says: “It’s not something I take much notice of. I try to ride my best every time. When I do make a mistake, I know myself. I’m handling it.”

Yet there have been few mistakes. When he rode Raz De Mee in the Welsh National, he realised the horse could not get in a good rhythm because of the strong early pace on heavy ground and had the sense to bide his time and pick off the pacesetters.

He timed his winning run to perfection – and then won a string of high-profile handicaps in the following weeks.

Asked if he had been offered the ride on the Gavin Cromwell-trained veteran in the National, Bowen replied: “Mr Hobson was the first to call. It would have been a hard choice if I did have a choice. I’ll take what I’m given.”

However there will be a friendly rivalry with older brother Sean, who is due to ride the Paul Nicholls-trained Warriors Tale.

“We look out for each other,” says the younger Bowen, who credits his brother for making his first season such a successful one.

Yet it is doubtful any jockey will prepare as studiously for the Grand National than James Bowen. He is immersing himself each evening in past runnings of the race –and is specifically looking at the form of horses whom he will be in opposition next weekend.

“You’ve got to know how others perform and what they could do, though it’s harder with the National. You have to prepare. I’ll also talk to my jockey coach, Mick Fitzgerald, who has run the race,” adds Bowen.

His teachers would be impressed. For, in a week dominated about whether teenagers should revise seven hours a day for exams, they would be surprised that their absentee pupil is so studious when it comes to his specialist subject – riding and making turf history.

No wonder he is creating a Bruce Hobbs-like stir.