Life on film provides jockey duo with fresh perspective

Jockey James Davies. PA
Jockey James Davies. PA
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JAMEs Davies and Mattie Batchelor are battle-hardened jockeys. As with all National Hunt riders, falls are an occupational hazard in a sport where both have struggled to reach the greatest heights.

Yet, after landing roles as ‘extras’ in movie legend Steven Spielberg’s World War One blockbuster War Horse that opened to critical acclaim and a Royal premiere, both see their sport – and the hardships – through a different prism.

“You think of all the horses that were killed and then realise three times as many soldiers lost their lives. Perhaps we’re the lucky ones,” reflected 27-year-old Davies.

Batchelor, the journeyman jockey who rode Lord Oaksey’s Carruthers to an emotional Hennessy Gold Cup victory this season, concurs. “It puts a wet Wednesday at Wetherby into perspective,” he told the Yorkshire Post.

Both were part of a battalion of horsemen called up to film cavalry scenes that were staged at the Duke of Wellington’s Stratfield Saye estate near Reading as part of Spielberg’s depiction of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel War Horse.

To Batchelor, it was relatively light-hearted – even if it meant dressing up as a German soldier and running through fields and mud to round up loose horses. Racing, he pointed out, had given him plenty of practice for his fleeting role.

To Davies, it was a fortnight on the frontline supplementing his income after a once richly-promising career approached a stuttering stop.

Born to be a jockey – Davies’s father Hywel carried Arkle owner Anne, Duchess of Westminster’s colours to victory in the 1985 Grand National on Last Suspect – he came to prominence in 2004.

A number of eye-catching victories, including several for Saltburn’s Keith Reveley, saw Davies narrowly lose out in that season’s race for the conditional jockeys’ title in which Jamie Moore narrowly prevailed over a clutch of emerging stars that also included Malton’s Andrew Tinkler and future Gold Cup-winning jockey Sam Thomas.

And then, once he had reached the 75-winner mark and ridden out his claim, the weight allowance he received from more experienced riders, the opportunities dried up.

The last seven seasons have yielded a meagre 30 winners – eight less than his 2003-04 total and down on the 36 successes that Davies enjoyed in 2004-05.

And although based in Oxfordshire, the fresh-faced rider hopes the good times will return after taking the decision to venture North more frequently.

He is building associations with, among others, Stainforth-based Richard Guest – himself a former National-winning rider – and has switched agents to Malton’s Russ James.

“It’s been frustrating because I know I’m good enough,” Davies commented.

“Hopefully, by coming up to Yorkshire more regularly, the rides will pick up. You’ve got to be positive. Perhaps that’s a lesson from War Horse.”

Davies and Batchelor received their call-up papers in the summer of 2010 via a film luminary who had made contact with Tom Symonds, the then assistant trainer to Nicky Henderson and the man responsible for schooling future Gold Cup winner Long Run.

“We would do different things each day, either on horseback or as foot soldiers rounding up horses. We were also on both sides – the English and we also played Germans,” recalled Davies.

“We saw Spielberg, he was a metre away from us at one point. The stunt horses were fantastic, most came from South America, while others were hunters. It was a long old process and, to be fair, the horses were pretty good.

“In one battle scene, we were running from the German camp to the woods. We must have done it 10, 15 times, running up and down the field, until Spielberg was happy he had the correct shot. It was one way of keeping your weight down.

“We had had our heads shaved and we had these Army boots that were hard to get any grip. It’s great to be part of War Horse – but I hope to be remembered for winning a big race or two.”

Even though he won the Hennessy on Carruthers, and still harbours dreams of winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup on this popular steeplechaser, the normally wise-cracking Batchelor concurs, although he concedes the film has made him more aware of this country’s debt to its Armed Forces.

“Jamie was well into it and, at a quiet time, there was a good few quid for the lads which is important,” says Batchelor. “I was a German soldier and I’d have to run out into a field and round up horses. You thought there were people playing dead, you trod on a body and then realised afterwards it was a dummy – great attention to detail.

“You had dying horses and, again, they were dummies. Just so realistic. It was quite warm in August. But then you think of winter – what these guys went through was horrendous. It makes you appreciate the good days, and put racing’s bad days, and the gripes, into perspective.”

Yet, despite this, both riders still believe their careers could have movie script potential – Batchelor for his partnership with Carruthers and Davies for joining his father on the Grand National roll of honour.

And neither would hesitate to play themselves. But, as Davies pointed out, they only have a race to win – their forebears had to prevail in a world war.