HARRY BANNISTER’s earliest memory of the Cheltenham Festival is perhaps the most evocative – and most inspirational.
He was just six, and had skipped school to watch his father Nick’s Hussard Collonges win the 2002 RSA Chase.
“We were just going mad,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “To be honest with you, I didn’t really know what was going on.”
He does now. A lifetime with horses has taught him that Cheltenham winners are the ultimate.
Now the 23-year-old jockey harbours ambitions of his own with Bigmartre, an each-way chance in next month’s Grade One JLT Novices’ Chase.
Eye-catching wins at Ludlow and Newbury were followed by an agonising second at Doncaster on Sky Bet Chase day when the long-time leader was caught on the line by Duke Of Navan.
The pain of defeat still rankles; the one disappointment in a meritorious campaign that has seen the proud Yorkshireman’s career take off since joining the up-and-coming trainer Harry Whittington.
Unlike all those promising jockeys who struggle when they graduate to the senior ranks after losing their weight allowance, the reverse has been true. His winners to date – 37 and counting – are a personal best. His rides (169) are up and his strike-rate – 22 per cent – has never been higher.
“I couldn’t have really asked for a better first season since losing my claim,” he says. “The Harry Whittington link up, it’s come at just the right time.
“A lot of credit for that must go to the team behind Harry. As good as he is, he has a very good team back at home. Adam Tucker, the racing manager, helps place the horses. He’s done a fantastic job – it’s not just the two Harrys on the racecard.”
Though Whittington and Bannister won last month’s Sussex National with the Eider Chase-bound Vinnie Lewis, they know that Cheltenham is the season-defining meeting and Bigmartre is the horse to showcase their respective talents.
“It breaks my heart,” reflects the rider on that Doncaster defeat. “The horse thinks he’s won. As far as the horse is concerned, he did everything right. It was only his third run over fences and the going was very sticky. He likes the top of the ground. Because his jumping is such an asset, he can get the others under pressure for longer. He has earned his right to go there (Cheltenham). It’s not as if he’s going there because he can. If he runs well, it will cap a good season.”
Bannister’s whole life has revolved around horses and hunting. His grandfather, Michael, a former president of Yorkshire Agricultural Society, bought the 1,500-acre Coniston Estate, near Gargrave, and established the exclusive Coniston Hotel.
His father, Nick, is joint master of the Pendle Forest and Craven Hunt as well as being a committee member at Haydock Park racecourse. It was his blue and mauve colours that were carried to Cheltenham glory by the Peter Beaumont-trained Hussard Collonges.
“Only when you look back do you realise what a big achievement it was,” says Bannister. “Me and Archie, my younger brother, used to race our ponies all the time. I always won – he will hate me for saying that. I just had a faster pony.”
Even though Archie is studying economics at Edinburgh University, the siblings talk each day about the racing form. “I don’t know what Mum and Dad think but they probably suspect,” says the older brother. “But it’s a big help to me.”
Family clearly matters. His grandfather was at Wetherby’s rain-soaked meeting last Saturday to offer his support. Because the Bannisters are steeped in Yorkshire point-to-point racing, the aspiring jockey spent his formative years, after completing his A-Levels under sufferance, with irascible Ryedale trainer Mick Easterby and his son, David.
What did he learn off the irrepressible Mick? “I don’t think you can write that down!” jokes Bannister before acknowledging how this legendary father and son combination where “hard but fair”.
He was grateful for being put on sound jumpers and accepted it was invariably the jockey’s fault if they did not win. From there, Bannister, who won two national amateur titles, turned professional and moved to the Lambourn yard of Warren Greatrex where the magnificent mare La Bague Au Moi’s win at Newbury in 2016 provided a big breakthrough.
“I actually broke my wrist the day before. There was no way I was telling him (Greatrex),” said the jockey, who is sponsored by Coniston Hotel. “That was how much confidence I had in the horse. I had a couple of pain-killers and didn’t feel it. When I fell at Plumpton on the Monday afterwards, it finished the wrist off.
“I would never have got that chance again. Saturday. Newbury. Hennessy day. It’s a big deal, Massive. I was still claiming. Warren said to me that I would never have ridden for him again if I was beaten. Just to get the chance on her, it was special. Now she, too, has a big chance at Cheltenham.”
A chance conversation between Bannister’s mother, Julia, and Whittington led to the new job last summer, though the jockey still rides out for Greatrex and Charlie Mann, who is another big supporter.
He is incredibly grateful for the support of his agent, Chris Broad, and his wife, Jane – “they’re very good friends” – while a black and tanned Jack Russell, by the name of Jasper, accompanies Bannister to the races and is part of the support team.
“He comes running round the course with me,” says the rider who places a premium on his fitness because of the high standards expected of jockeys. While he jokes that he is not the most academic member of his family, his mantra – “no-one is going to do it for you” – epitomises the Bannister dynasty.