HARRY COBDEN has always had a special affinity with the Betfair Chase from childhood Saturday afternoons when he would wander off the sports pitch into his teacher’s study and watch the iconic Kauto Star compete for one of jump racing’s stellar prizes.
Last year he rode the now retired Cue Card – another multiple winner of this famous race – and today the fresh-faced jockey partners the progressive Clan Des Obeaux, whose co-owners include Manchester United’s former manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
Iti s a major step up in class as Clan Des Obeaux – trained, like Kauto Star, by Paul Nicholls – takes on Native River and Might Bite, the first two home in this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, 2017 Betfair Chase winner Bristol De Mai and Thistlecrack, the comeback horse.
Yet the 20-year-old, whose meteoric rise culminated with him becoming No 1 rider to 10-times champion trainer Nicholls earlier this year, is just relieved to be riding after his high-profile appointment was followed by a horrific fall in early June.
“That was a bit of a mishap – breaking my neck,” he says.
The phlegmatic jockey is referring to his fall from Mick Thonic in a Market Rasen steeplechase when he initially thought that he had damaged some muscles.
It was only when the pain worsened, and he decided to delay driving home to his native Somerset, that he sought further medical advice.
It is fortunate that he did so. He was taken by ambulance to a trauma hospital in Nottingham where scans revealed a clean fracture through his C2 vertebra. It could easily have ended his career – and altered his life – and it’s why he is sanguine about the 12 weeks spent in a neck brace in high summer.
“It could have been a lot worse. It wasn’t nice when it was 30 degrees in the summer,” he says. “It’s the second vertebra down on your neck. Touch wood, I won’t be having another injury like that anytime soon. I feel lucky to be walking around.” And riding.
It is the cheery Cobden’s optimistic outlook on life that explains why he has coped better than most with the weight of expectation – and pressure of riding for a tough taskmaster in Nicholls – since partnering Old Guard to Greatwood Hurdle success at Cheltenham three years ago.
“Three years ago. Times flies. It’s been an unbelievably journey,” he reminisces. Back then Cobden was just another promising rider, largely unknown outside his home county of Somerset where he relaxes by looking after his own herd of cattle and livestock to help take his mind off racing.
Injury aside, he has not looked back. A first Grade One came in December 2016 when Irving won the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. “That was a good day,” enthuses Cobden as he recalls how the win was so unexpected at the time and how he, like others, credits good horses with making good riders.
The 2017–18 season got even better, with a Tingle Creek Chase win on the Nicholls-trained Politologue, who reappears at Ascot today, and a Stayers’ Hurdle win at the Cheltenham Festival on Kilbricken Storm for Colin Tizzard, a longstanding family friend and mentor.
While this year’s Grand National meeting saw Cobden claim Grade One honours on Diego Du Charmil, it was his ride on Tizzard’s Ultragold in the Topham Chase that defines this special talent.
“Bloody good days,” he enthuses. Victorious in 2017, Ultragold and Cobden were leading the field to the Canal Turn on the National course when a riderless horse appeared on the inner. Acutely conscious of the 90 degree bend after the fence, the jockey took a hard pull, avoided interference – and then cut the corner to seal the race.
“Probably more luck than judgment,” says the rider whose mindset explains why he will not be daunted by today’s challenge on Clan Des Obeaux, who beat Sue Smith’s Vintage Clouds at Haydock’s corresponding meeting 12 months ago.
“We know he goes well at the track. He’s a little bit to find with the others on official ratings, but he’s a six-year-old and he’s still improving. He’s got a nice chance.
“He jumps very well, but so do all the others. It’s the first major Grade One of the season. It’s a race I have watched on TV since I was at prep school. I was with the grandsons of Paul Barber, one of the owners of Clan Des Obeaux. We used to do sport on a Saturday, but go into the teacher’s study to watch the race if a horse like Kauto Star was running.”
It was a formative lesson that Harry Cobden hopes to put to good use today.