Unlikely alliance steering The Dude to Aintree

Part owners Mike Tindall (left) and James Simpson-Daniel with Monbeg Dude. (Picture: David Davies/PA Wire)
Part owners Mike Tindall (left) and James Simpson-Daniel with Monbeg Dude. (Picture: David Davies/PA Wire)
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James Simpson-Daniel has two claims to fame – an England rugby international and one of the proud owners of Welsh National hero Monbeg Dude who puts his Aintree credentials on the line today. He spoke exclusively to Tom Richmond.

JAMES SIMPSON-DANIEL knows all about pressure – the recently retired rugby union international has performed with distinction on some of world sport’s greatest stages.

James Simpson-Daniel scoring a try for England against today's opponents Italy in 2006.

James Simpson-Daniel scoring a try for England against today's opponents Italy in 2006.

Yet nothing could prepare the mercurial winger for the nerve-jangling experience of co-owning a share of the ever popular steeplechaser Monbeg Dude.

It is why the 32-year-old will be absent from Twickenham today when a revitalised England play Italy on the second weekend of the RBS Six Nations.

Instead Simpson-Daniel will find himself 210 miles away at the slightly less raucous Haydock Park racecourse on Merseyside when the Michael Scudamore-trained horse enjoys one of his last prep races ahead of a second tilt at the Crabbie’s Grand National in April.

Together with the under-estimated Scudamore whose grandfather and father are revered in National Hunt racing, Simpson-Daniel co-owns ‘The Dude’ with former rugby team-mates Mike Tindall – who hails from Otley – and fellow international Nicky Robinson.

He will be counting down the minutes to 2.55pm – the start of the Betfred Grand National Trial – before his horse-of-a-lifetime, the mount of the soon-to-retire AP McCoy, is saddled.

And Simpson-Daniel admits that he will be a bundle of nerves as he watches Monbeg Dude negotiate each of the 22-fences. There will be none of the bravado that he demonstrated in the final days of his teenage years when he waltzed around the legendary Jonah Lomu to score a memorable try at Twickenham.

“Some people have said why don’t you record ‘the Dude’ and go to Twickenham, but I have done rugby for all those years,” Simpson-Daniel told The Yorkshire Post. “It means a lot to go and watch the horse, as much as my nerves struggle to hold up. At least with rugby, your nerves were gone when you ran out onto the pitch. I feel it. ‘Tinds’ is ultra-cool and calm, but Nicky and I wear our hearts on our sleeves. I’m nervous – I feel it at every fence.”

Born at Stockton-on-Tees and educated at Sedbergh School – a great rugby academy which also produced Will Carling and Will Greenwood – Simpson-Daniel starred in the iconic cherry and white of Gloucester from 2001 until last year in an injury-prone career which also yielded 10 England caps.

His fearlessness, and dashing play is still revered in the west country as one of Kingsholm’s favourite sons embarks upon a new career in the gaming industry as a professional bookmaker with Fitzdares, a firm offering tailor-made experiences for the more discerning gamblers.

Yet, while rugby took Simpson-Daniel all over the world, horse racing has taken the father-of-two and his “best friends” on the proverbial journey of a lifetime.

A dramatic victory at Cheltenham, jump racing’s spiritual home and the local course to the owners, in November 2012; a Welsh National win at Chepstow in January 2013 when the horse came from another county to deny the admirable Teaforthree; a more than creditable seventh in the 2014 Grand National and a gallant fourth in last December’s Welsh National when burdened with 11st 9lb.

These are highlights that rugby’s three musketeers, and their trainer, did not envisage when a slightly inebriated Tindall bid £12,000, unintentionally, for an unproven racehorse during an auction at Cheltenham Racecourse. Now the winner of nearly £150,000, Monbeg Dude already owes nothing to his connections.

“I was with Tinds,” recalled Simpson-Daniel whose wife’s family live a long hack from Sue and Harvey Smith’s stables near Bingley. “I immediately said I would take a leg. And then Nicky. It all happened very quickly. I was there from the outset.

“Once he got going, the early signs were promising. He was second in his Bumper at Uttoxeter on new year’s eve in 2010 but then he disappointed at Towcester – it transpired he’s better going left-handed. Each time, we threw him in at the deep end and he responded.”

The early promise was confirmed when Monbeg Dude won the Henrietta Knight Handicap Chase at Cheltenham in November 2012, a first at the track for the aforementioned Scudamore.

While Tindall was on duty for Gloucester, injury meant Simpsion-Daniel was at Cheltenham leading the cheers as the horse turned for home. “We were just watching him jumping, then we’re saying, ‘He’s still there, he’s still there’, and then we got more and more excited,” he said.

And then to Monbeg Dude’s finest hour – the following January’s Coral Welsh National win at Chepstow when the horse came from last to first under the mercurial Paul Carberry amid celebratory scenes that would not have looked out of place at Twickenham.

“That was very special because we went there not thinking that we had a chance to win – we hoped to get round and come fourth, fifth or sixth,” he explained. “With three to jump, we thought he was pulling up because we couldn’t see him – and there he was on the TV screen. Carberry was certainly far cooler than the owners of ‘the Dude’. What a day of emotions – rugby doesn’t prepare you for that.”

Yet, while the chaser has only once been first past the post in 10 starts since his Chepstow heroics, the 10-year-old horse’s jumping is more assured thanks to some tutelage from Tindall’s wife Zara Phillips – the Queen’s eldest grand-daughter.

It enabled Monbeg Dude to compete in last year’s National and finish a creditable seventh to Pineau de Re. However, Simpson-Daniel’s abiding memory was his concern for the wellbeing of the aforementioned Carberry who hails from one of Ireland’s great racing dynasties.

“As we were coming into Aintree, Paul could hardly walk because of a heavy fall the previous day. ‘Oh s***, you can’t ride’, I said. ‘No, I’ll be alright’, he assured us. He was brilliant,” said the relieved owner.

His shattered nerves back in one piece, and his rugby career now in the past, Simpson-Daniel heads to Haydock today hoping for Monbeg Dude to reaffirm his status as one of the country’s foremost staying steeplechasers.

He views the race as a stepping stone to this year’s National and there is also every possibility that Monbeg Dude will warm up for Aintree, as Pineau De Re did last year, with a prep race at the Cheltenham Festival.

Win, lose or draw, there is one certainty – the connections will remain the best of friends.

“Tinds is the bloodstock agent. Nicky is the owner who wears his heart on his sleeve and is never afraid to ask daft questions, like should ‘the Dude’ run in the Melbourne Cup?” says Simpson-Daniel.

“Mike Scu is the fourth leg and the perfect trainer for us. he does all the grafting. Yes, Zara did help Monbeg Dude with his jumping, but Mike has done all the work at home. He deserves a lot more credit than he gets.”

And the role of James Simpson-Daniel? He likes to be the middle man – the broker who keeps the show on the road and who is on the phone to his co-owners making sure that they’re happy with racing and riding arrangements. It is a role that he clearly relishes. “Tinds and Nicky are godparents to my children, and we are very close. To have that, and to share that friendship with ‘the Dude’, is brilliant,” he says proudly.

McCoy steps in...

MONBEG DUDE will be ridden for the first time today by AP McCoy – just a week after the 20-times champion jockey announced his intention to retire.

Yet the 40-year-old remains in unstoppable form at the culmination of a roller-coaster week which included winners in four countries on consecutive days as his farewell tour gathered pace.

After landing his 200th winner of the campaign at Newbury last Saturday aboard Queen Mother Champion chase contender Mr Mole, McCoy has since ridden at Leopardstown, Catterick, Ayr, Chepstow, Kelso and Fakenham yesterday in a remarkable feat of travel endurance.

No wonder Monbeg Dude’s co-owner James Simpson-Daniel was delighted when McCoy became available for today’s Betfred Grand National trial. “He’s not a bad name to bring off the subs bench,” he said.

However, Simpson-Daniel made two other pertinent points. He said the falls suffered by jockeys are often as serious as the high-impact collisions witnessed on the rugby pitch.

He also recalls, at the outset of his Gloucester career, naming McCoy as a hero and role model because of the champion jockey’s consistency and resilience. “He is the best,” added Simpson-Daniel.