Ryan Mania: Why I thrive on big race pressure ahead of Midnight Shadow ride Cheltenham

THERE are some jockeys renowned for freezing on the big occasions. Ryan Mania, however, is the opposite – he believes such racedays bring out the best in his riding.

Ryan Mania is due to partner Midnight Shadow in today's Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

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It explains why he’s so relaxed as he prepares to ride Midnight Shadow in today’s prestigious Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

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The centrepiece of Cheltenham’s three-day meeting, the historic race, first run in 1960, is also one of the most competitive chases in the entire National Hunt calendar.

Ryan Mania (orange cap) in the Midnight Shadow colours with trainers Sue and Harvey Smith at Wetherby.

But Mania also believes Sue and Harvey Smith’s stable star has the necessary class to become just the third Yorkshire-trained winner after Neville Crump’s Cancello (1976) and the Ferdy Murphy-trained L’Antartique in 2007.

“I have always relished riding in the big races,” said the 32-year-old horseman in an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post.

“Some people get a bit apprehensive before big races but I am probably a bit more relaxed than I would be if I was riding a modest 0-100 race at Sedgefield.

“I don’t get to do it enough for my liking. I like to ride good horses in good races, that’s what I enjoy most of all about the job.”

Ryan Mania and Vintage Clouds win the Ultima Handicap Chase at Cheltenham in March 2021.

Mania will always be synonymous with his unexpected 2013 Grand National win on Auroras Encore – the first Yorkshire horse to win Aintree’s world famous steeplechase since Merryman II prevailed in 1960 for the aforementioned Crump and Middleham rider Gerry Scott.

He was also the calmest person on Merseyside before his National debut – his calm demeanour was in complete contrast to the nervous tension that was etched across the faces of his family and friends.

It’s been the same in the two years since Galashiels-born Mania returned to the saddle after a five year absence from the sport prompted by struggles with his weight.

High-profile wins last season on Yorkhill in Newcastle’s Rehearsal Chase; Seeyouatmidnight in Sandown’s Veterans’ Chase Final and, most famously of all, the Smith-trained Vintage Clouds in the Ultima Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival are further testament to the jockey’s unflappability at the sport’s signature meetings.

This was Midnight Shadow winning the 2019 Scottish Champion Hurdle under the now retired Danny Cook.

But his anticipation ahead of this afternoon’s ride on the Aafke and Cyril Clarke-owned Midnight Shadow was discernible yesterday at daybreak as he drove across Scotland to ride out for trainer Mike Smith near Ayr.

This optimism stems from the horse’s clear liking for Cheltenham – Midnight Shadow has twice won at the track under the now retired Danny Cook while Mania was in the saddle when the horse was runner-up to the cannily-handicapped Irish raider Chatham Street Lad in last December’s Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at jump racing’s HQ.

Yet it was Midnight Shadow’s comeback run in Old Roan Chase at Aintree that took the jockey’s breath away. He jumped with precision in a fiercely competitive two and a half mile contest before a small error at the penultimate fence put paid to his chances, eventually finishing third to Allmankind for Dan and Harry Skelton.

However the manner in which Midnight Shadow galloped to the line at Aintree fills Mania with added confidence ahead of today’s 20-runner race that also features Nietzsche – another course specialist – for Malton trainer Brian Ellison and jockey Danny McMenamin.

Midnight Shadow and the now retired Danny Cook after winning at Cheltenham on January 1, 2020.

“He’s got a great chance,” enthused Mania. “The one very small niggle is that he had a hard race in the Old Roan and that wasn’t long ago (October 24). “He has come out of the race perfectly well and is bouncing at home. He has shown no sign of any effects from the race and is entitled to come on for the run.

“He loves Cheltenham, he loves the ground and he loves the trip. Everything is in his favour. I can only think of this one small niggle and that is if it is too soon after Aintree.”

Mania lights up when he’s asked to describe what it is like to ride a horse with such presence over steeplechase obstacles. “Unbelievable,” he says with genuine feeling and fondness for Midnight Shadow.

“Riding him at Cheltenham last December, and then Aintree this time, the feeling he gives you, the way he jumps and travels, he’s a genuine graded horse. Unbelievable. He jumps, he travels and he’s also won a Scottish Champion Hurdle so he has plenty of speed.”

That Mania, too, recorded his first ever success at Cheltenham in March when Vintage Clouds, running in the colours of the late Trevor Hemmings, won the Ultima Chase at the fifth attempt is another source of confidence.

He remains strongly of the view that the North’s trainers and jockeys are more than good enough to compete at the highest level – and only a shortage of top-class horses at their stables is holding them back from enjoying more frequent success against powerhouse yards from both sides of the Irish Sea.

“Having a Cheltenham winner does give you a bit of confidence that you can win if you’re good enough,” explains Mania who says today’s performance will determine if Midnight Shadow has the requisite class and stamina to justify his entry in Kempton’s King George VI Chase on Boxing Day.

“You don’t know until you try,” says a jockey who would relish a ride in National Hunt racing’s mid-season highlight. “There’s only one way to find out.”

In the meantime, he strives to keep his connections happy on those days when horses for the Smiths and his stepfather-in-law Sandy Thomson clash. “Splitting myself in two would be nice,” he admits. “I hate missing rides.”

Yet he concedes that he would have settled for such dilemmas when he made his comeback in the autumn of 2019. “Bloody right.” And then he emphasises – again – his desire to ride in the top races and why he gets up at 5am to travel to ride out on the gallops: “Saturday, Cheltenham. It doesn’t get much better than that.”