JOE Colliver still has to pinch himself that he’s a Grade One-winning rider after making all to land Ascot’s prestigious Long Walk Hurdle on the front-running Sam Spinner.
“There are plenty of very good jockeys out there who haven’t ridden a Grade One, and who a ride a lot more than me. It’s good to get one,” he told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.
He’s also undaunted about Middleham trainer Jedd O’Keeffe’s stable star now being favourite for the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March. “It’ll be good to go there with a chance,” he says.
Yet this doesn’t begin to do justice to the ride that Sheffield-born Colliver produced at Ascot exactly a fortnight ago – his very first ride at the world-famous Berkshire track.
After making all to win a valuable hurdle on Sam Spinner at Haydock in late November, the nerveless jockey repeated the tactics to perfection to deny L’Ami Serge, winner of last year’s French Champion Hurdle, and Unowhatimeanharry, a previous Cheltenham winner.
It was also a coming-of-age ride for Colliver who, on Boxing Day two years ago, crashed his car while twice over the legal drink-drive limit and was jailed for perverting the course of justice when he paid a friend £2,000 to take the blame once police had discovered the wrecked vehicle and identified the jockey as the culprit.
Jailed for 10 months, Colliver spent three months behind bars – plenty of time to think about his foolhardiness and whether he would ever again ride horses like Just Cameron, the Micky Hammond-trained horse that launched his career and finished second at the 2015 Punchestown Festival, or Sam Spinner who had made a winning debut at Catterick before the jockey lost his liberty.
“I’ve grown up,” he says with new-found maturity. “The day I went down, I thought it was all over. It’s silly how bad things make you grow up when you should have known better all along. All my trainers, owners and stable staff have been very good to me and I hope I can repay them. It’s good to be able to move on. I regret everything.”
Owned by Caron and Paul Chapman, Sam Spinner has now won six of his nine races and been runner up on the other three occasions. A £12,600 purchase, the six-year-old has accumulated £142,000 prize money, won a small army of supporters and injected a new lease of life into Yorkshire jump racing following his landmark Ascot triumph.
“To be fair, I didn’t really get nervous. I was quietly confident after Haydock and the way he did it there,” said Colliver.
“I went down to Ascot with Henry Brooke and went for a run round the track so I knew where I was going! It was good to be down there on a big day like that. To get a winner was even better.”
Asked how a jockey judges the pace, Colliver’s answer is revealing. “I don’t. He (Sam Spinner) does. I just let him do what he wants. He knows how fast to go and where to go.
“I just tried to give him a little breather at Swinley Bottom but he had plenty left and still quickened up.
“In the home straight, I gave him two little flicks of the whip with my back hand just to keep him up to it. There was no pressure applied at all.
“I could feel Unowhatimeanharry on my left and I clearly heard something coming on my right. I got a good glimpse of L’Ami Serge and I was a little worried because Daryl (Jacob) wasn’t moving in the saddle.
“I was probably a bit more hard at work but looks can be deceptive – I had more in the tank. It didn’t sink in until I did the interview with ITV Racing and walked back under the tunnel at Ascot towards the winner’s enclosure thinking ‘I’ve just won a Grade One’.
“The best thing Jedd’s assistant Tim Hogg said to me all day was ‘ride him how you ride best. He’s the kind of horse who can make you’. It was very good advice.”
Though the Northern Racing College graduate remains an integral member of the Hammond stable – he rode the veteran Just Cameron to a popular win in Wetherby’s Castleford Chase on December 27 – opportunities have emerged at the nearby O’Keeffe yard following the retirement of veteran jockey Brian Harding.
“Jedd and his wife Andrea have had a great year on the Flat and over jumps,” said Colliver, 26. “Very down to earth people and they can’t do enough to help you. Very loyal people. Their owners are very loyal. Swings and roundabouts. If you are good to people, people are good to you.
“When I got out of prison, I went straight back into work at Micky’s and started riding out. I went over to school with Jedd and he came up to me and said it wouldn’t effect our relationship provided the owners were happy for me to ride their horses. I’m very grateful for all the owners who have given me a second chance.”
Sam Spinner is unlikely to race before his date with destiny at Cheltenham in March. This year’s three-mile hurdling division is wide open and Colliver is determined to ride as many winners as possible in the meantime while staying injury free.
A quirky horse on the gallops, Colliver says Sam Spinner comes alive on the racecourse and is getting better with every run. He won’t be afraid to make all the running at the National Hunt Festival – Gavin Sheehan and Cole Harden made all in 2015.
“When I won on him at Catterick (February 2016), I said to Jedd ‘This is the nicest horse I’ve sat on’. Every time I’ve ridden him, I’ve said it as I’ve dismounted. The more races he (Sam Spinner) has, the better.
“It would be great for the North to have a grade One Cheltenham Festival winner and even better for an up and coming trainer.”