JAMES BEST is the first to admit that he is the personification of the archetypal journeyman jockey who will travel anywhere for rides – and opportunities.
His current round-Britain tour began at Aintree on Saturday, where he made Becher Chase history on the Randox Health Grand National hopeful Walk In The Mill, before taking him to Huntingdon on Sunday and Musselburgh yesterday, where his one ride was a winning one and justified the long trip north.
Today the rider, whose career-best season came in 2013-14 when he recorded 25 winners, takes his saddle to Sussex for one ride at Fontwell. Yet his long-distance travelling is made easier by his burgeoning association with Yorkshire-born trainer Robert Walford, now based in Dorset, and Aintree specialist Walk In The Mill.
Owned by Dido Harding who won the 1998 Cheltenham Gold Cup with Cool Dawn, the horse is now a leading contender for next year’s National after becoming the first to win back-to-back renewals of the Becher Chase over Aintree’s formidable fences.
“Last year was the biggest day of my career when we won the Becher,” a still elated Best told The Yorkshire Post. “Likewise, on Saturday, for him to win it again, it was unbelievable. You can’t be naive going into a race like the Becher expecting to win. All you can do is be forever hopeful that your horse acts well and has a bit of luck in running.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no ilusions that I am the definition of a journeyman jockey.James Best
This timeless mantra certainly applied on Saturday when Best’s horse did well to avoid being brought down at the very first fence in a race that saw Brian Ellison’s Definitly Red put down a National marker by finishing fourth.
Now Best is looking forward to a second National tilt with Walk In The Mill who was the first British-trained runner to complete the gruelling four-and-a-quarter mile course when fourth to dual winner Tiger Roll.
“I can’t wait. You’ve got to be very hopeful – provided that he gets there in one piece,” said the rider who is only too aware of the pitfalls when it comes to training racehorses after Walk In The Mill was withdrawn with injury from the 2018 National on the morning of the race. “It’s hard to explain why he saves his best for Aintree. He just seems to enjoy himself round there and gave me a fantastic spin in this year’s National – it was a dream spin and very gutsy to keep galloping to finish fourth.”
Born in Cornwall where he excelled on the pony racing circuit, Best was a conditional rider at the yard of Philip Hobbs alongside champion jockey Richard Johnson before going freelance in the search of further opportunities.
It explains the link-up with the aforementioned Walford – and the loyalty shown to Best in high-profile races when big name jockeys are always looking for the best rides.
Walford, whose father Tim trained in Ryedale, was a successful jockey – he enjoyed Grade One success on Kingscliff – before retiring in 2012 to begin a training career. His brother Mark trains at the family’s farm at Sheriff Hutton.
“He’s a very level-headed person, whether it is good or bad days,” explained Best, who has just over 180 career victory to his name. “He takes everything in his stride. A typical Yorkshireman. We were chatting away the other day when I was riding out and he told me that he went to pony class with Nicola Wilson, the Olympic medallist, and Oliver Townend, another top three-day event rider. Like any trainer, you can only do your best with the animals that you have in front of you. He does very well with the horses he has; he certainly gets the most out of them. Not every horse is a Walk In The Mill. He keeps it really simple.”
Best, who record his first successes in the 2010-11 season, is now on the 15-winner mark for the current campaign from 171 rides. Yet, while these statistics appear modest, his work ethic is second to none and his weighing room colleagues were universally thrilled to see him win a second Becher.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no ilusions that I am the definition of a journeyman jockey,” added the 29-year-old. “I will go anywhere for rides and I am very grateful for the opportunities that I get. I keep working as hard a I can – so much needs to go right for you. Whatever happens, it is why Walk In The Mill will always be my horse of a lifetime.”