Gavin Sheehan on his rise to the top from Cole Harden to Simply The Betts
The horse that made Sheehan, victory in Wetherby’s West Yorkshire Hurdle was followed by an all-the-way success in the Stayers’ Hurdle at the prestigious Cheltenham Festival for trainer Warren Greatrex.
Yet, while the former champion conditional is one of the country’s most gifted horsemen, it took Sheehan another five years to return to the hallowed winner’s enclosure at the National Hunt Festival.
And the consummate ease of his victory earlier this month on the aptly-named Simply The Betts rewarded the rider for the hard graft that it has taken to become established in the sport – and vindicated his decision to become retained rider to leading owner Andrew Brooks.
Although the 27-year-old fell four victories short of eclipsing his personal best total of 73 winners, the success of the Harry Whittington-trained Simply The Betts – and a Grade One triumph on Olly Murphy’s Itchy Feet – gave the rider plenty to smile about as racing began its Covid-19 shutdown.
“It’s been a very good season and I had a good few graded successes, while the prize-money was good, as was the strike rate,” reflected Sheehan.
“I started off with a good summer and I steadily tipped away and there was not much left behind. I rode 70 winners – 73 is my best and with six weeks left I probably would have beaten it, but I know my target for next season.
“I was lucky enough to ride a few good winners at Saturday meetings this season and with the horses I’ve got, hopefully I can push forward again.”
There may have been no Festival success for Itchy Feet after his early departure in the Marsh Novices’ Chase won by Samcro in an epic three-way finish, but Sheehan believes he can return to the form that saw him capture the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown on his previous start.
This is the race that saw Itchy Feet and Sheehan recover their equilibrium after pecking on landing at the penultimate fence before overhauling Midnight Shadow on the run-in to deny West Yorkshire trainer Sue Smith, and jockey Danny Cook, a first Grade One success.
“Andrew Brooks was keen to get his first Grade One this season and it was a bonus to get it for Olly Murphy as well aboard him at Sandown,” said Sheehan.
“He never made a mistake around Sandown, but he was just a bit novicey at Cheltenham and he lacked that experience there when they are going that stride quicker.
“I don’t know what route he will go down as I can’t see why he won’t stay three, but has the speed for two. He has plenty of scope, he just needs to brush up on his jumping, but Olly Murphy is a good, young trainer who will get that sorted.”
Rarely will Sheehan have ridden a big-race winner with more potential than Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate hero Simply The Betts, a victory he is confident can be a springboard to bigger and better prizes.
In one of the celebrations of the week, Sheehan even commandeered a scarf that had his name emblazoned across the blue, white and red colours of the winning owner – the rousing cheers warming the heart on a piercingly cold afternoon in the Cotswolds.
“That was just poetry in motion and I didn’t have to move a muscle on him. The race was easy from where I was and I had the run of the race. He came up the hill well. There is a lot more left in the tank,” said Sheehan who, nevertheless, is mindful that Cole Harden was never able to replicate the form of the 2014-15 season.
“He is a class jumper that again has the speed for two, but would stay three. He settled very well and is an athletic horse. I think he will have to step up again, but he has the ability to.”
Despite Saint Calvados ending the season with just one victory to his name, his career-best effort in defeat behind the magnificent Min in the Ryanair Chase suggested to Sheehan he could be a horse to prosper over a longer trip.
He said: “It was probably the best ride I’ve had off him and Harry Whittington had him primed for the day.
“He might be a bit better stepping up to three miles and he could possibly go the King George route.”
Although Emitom failed to back up his Grade Two success in the Rendlesham Hurdle when finishing fourth in the Stayers’ Hurdle, it was a performance Sheehan believes marked the horse – from the same stable as the aforementioned Cole Harden – as a future star.
He said: “He is still a young horse that doesn’t have that many miles on the clock and it could be that he is one for the Stayers’ Hurdle in a few years time. I’m quite excited by him. He strengthened up this year and he will again.”
Much of Sheehan’s success has been down to his role as first jockey to owners Andrew and Kate Brooks. He added: “Andrew backs me 110 per cent and shows a lot of faith in me.
“I have a gentleman’s agreement as first jockey to him and it has been going great. He is putting a lot into the game. He also has lot of youngsters for next season, which is exciting for everyone.”