JAMES REVELEY could not be more relaxed as he prepares to ride Night In Milan in the most famous horse race in the world.
“You can’t call it a job,” explains the languidly-spoken rider ahead of today’s Crabbie’s Grand National. “You are living, and earning money, doing your hobby.” He means it.
This, after all, is a 26-year-old horseman who was born to ride. His family have farmed at Lingdale, a former iron mining village on the tip of North Yorkshire, for generations and are respected throughout the world of racing.
His father Keith trains Night In Milan, the multiple Doncaster winner who will relish the drying conditions at Aintree, while his mother Fiona will be among those looking after the horse during the preliminaries.
They are a close-knit team who believe they are far better prepared for this year’s race than 2009 when their stable stalwart Rambling Minster, one of the favourites, was pulled-up and the Reveley family just wanted the day to end.
Now they head to Merseyside slightly under the radar – 20-times champion jockey AP McCoy will carry the weight of expectation when he partners the heavily-backed Shutthefrontdoor in his final National before retirement.
It suits the junior Reveley, who is on course for a career-best season – heis on the 52-winner mark despite dividing his time between these shores and France where he has blossomed for many summers now under the shrewd eye of master trainer Guillaume Macaire.
“You can’t strongly fancy any horse for the National because it is a bit of a lottery,” says Reveley, who believes his time in France has improved his riding so his mounts are more fluent at their obstacles.
“You have to go out there with an open mind. There are no certainties. If you get round, it’s a big achievement. You do this sport because you get a buzz from riding horses at speed over fences and these are the stiffest 30 fences in the world.”
Groundhill Farm, home to the Reveleys, is not your archetypal racing stables. It is nestled, almost anonymously, behind a row of houses that look out over Skelton, Saltburn and on to the North Sea. To the north are container ships docking at Teesport; to the south are sweeping views looking down the East Coast towards Whitby.
Yet it is still a dairy farm – albeit one operating at a loss because of the slump in milk prices – and this works hand-in-hand with the family’s racing operation.
Like the farming side of the business run by the rider’s uncle, the Reveley operation is much smaller today compared to 20 years ago when the famously shy Mary Reveley, grandmother to James and mother to Keith, was training upwards of 120 horses and had real stars like top chaser Cab On Target and Mellottie, who had enough speed to win the Cambridgeshire – one of Flat racing’s top handicaps.
Today, the family, and their small team of dedicated staff, have around 20 horses in training. They also have half-a-dozen brood mares and the ultimate dream would be to have a horse good enough to win a National. They can not afford to spend £100,000 on buying a racehorse – the going rate for a good prospect. Nor do they have owners with deep enough pockets.
However, 20 is a manageable number, says Reveley senior, who was assistant to his mother, affectionately known as the ‘Canny Granny’ for 25 years, before taking over the training licence 12 years ago. “My father was from a butcher’s family from Stockton and rode in local point-to-points,” he said. “It was my mother’s side who had the farm. This was a dairy farm and used to have point-to-points.
“Mother would keep show ponies; she once bred the show pony of the year. I was born here, and as soon as I could leave school, I went to work for Arthur Stephenson where I first came across Richard Collins, who owns Night In Milan. It’s funny how things work out...
“We started up with four little wooden boxes at the top there in 1979. From those four boxes, we were up to 120 horses in 15 years. The big turning point was Mellottie winning the Cambridgeshire at Newmarket and horses like Cab On Target came on season. In one year, we had over 170 winners – Flat and over the jumps.”
At the same time, Reveley and his wife were trvelling around Britain with James as he became a young show-jumper of considerable repute before deciding that there was nothing like the thrill of riding over National Hunt fences for a living (and a hobby) after completing his GCSEs at Sacred Heart School in Redcar.
“It’s always been the same with James... hands and balance,” says the proud father when asked to offer an assessment of his son. “I remember we used to go to the local equestrian centre when he was eight or nine. The fella who used to do the commentary, he’d always say ‘There’s James Reveley, marvellous hands’. We took him to Yogi Breisner, the top coach, when he was 15 and he said the same thing.”
The younger Reveley smiles at the recollections before offering this assessment of his parents. “Dad is a horseman and he understands horses,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “He’s out there in the yard at all times of the day. He’s also very understanding when things don’t go right. He’s very easy to ride for. My mum has stopped riding out – she was our main work rider for horses like Rambling Minster and Tazbar. Now she is the top ‘mucker outer’.”
As for Night In Milan, the nine-year-old has made phenomenal progress and has won seven of his 34 starts. He just missed the cut for last year’s National – the weights were set before he led from start to finish to land the William Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster in March, 2014 with some breathtaking jumps that linger in the memory.
Yet, despite a significant rise in the weights, the horse confirmed his well-being this season with three eye-catching efforts – all at Doncaster – which saw Night In Milan placed on each occasion and only beaten by lighter-weighted rivals.
As a rider, Reveley has used these races to get to know the horse’s quirks better – he says he will not have to try and make all to win the National when jumping, and stamina, will be at a premium over a marathon trip just short of four-and-a-half miles.
He will be just satisfied to complete the course after Rambling Minster was pulled up before he suffered the ignomy of a first fence fall from That’s Right in 2011 and then came to grief at The Chair, the biggest fence in race, 12 months later when unseated from Always Right.
However, it does not perturb the jockey’s father, who is determined to try and enjoy the occasion, and hopes that the highly-strung Night In Milan – a buzzy horse at the best of times and reluctant to peak his head over the stable door for the photographer – does not boil over in the preliminaries and blow his chance at the start.
“Apart from winning on Endless Power in the Grand Sefton, James hasn’t got a great record around there, but it’s a race that should suit him,” said Reveley senior.
“He knows Night In Milan inside out. I think the plan is to hunt away early on, try and get in a nice rhythm and see where it takes him. If you can survive the first circuit, you’ve half a chance. What will be, will be.”