It was brotherly love. At the end of that long and sustained duel up the Chepstow straight Aidan Coleman had inched out Sam Twiston Davies to win the Welsh National, then as the two horses freewheeled downhill Sam reached over and hugged his rival. It will remain one of 2014’s most inspiring images, a racing version of that moment when Freddie Flintoff comforted Brett Lee at the end of the Ashes Test at Edgbaston. It says a lot about the two jockeys, and brotherly love is especially important to Aidan Coleman.
For while the tall, reed-thin, 26 year old schoolteacher’s son from County Cork constantly stresses how lucky he has been in friends and colleagues along his eight season 400 winner journey to jump racing’s Top Ten, it is to his older brother Kevin, former jockey and now University of Limerick Sport’ Science student that he talks to every day and to whom he owes the greatest debt.
“I have always stood on my own two feet,” says Aidan, “but I have always had a lot of people around me. My parents were very supportive, I can’t stress how much I owe to John Murphy. I HAD THREE SEASONS PONY RACING AND RODE AROUND 100 WINNERS. I spent time with Pat Doyle and David Wachman, Hen and Terry (Henrietta Knight and Terry Biddlecombe) were wonderful to me when I first came over to England. Sam Stronge (jockeys agent) has been by my side from the start. Venetia Williams has put faith in me. Sammy (Twiston Davies) and Richie McLernon are great friends and we even went to Las Vegas together at the end of last season. But without Kevin I would not be doing this – end of.”
Aidan is so intense and detailed that you need to take a breath and go back to the very beginning. His parents Pat and Eileen met in college, started teaching in schools in Cork and raised their four children in a little house with a garage and a front lawn at Inishannon some 12 miles south west of the City. “Pat and I were both from farming background,” said Eileen Coleman on Christmas Eve, “so we were used to dealing with draught horses and the odd half bred but we never had anything to do with racing until we came down here and Pat Lordan, Wayne Lordan’s father was just across the road, their cousin was the point to point jockey Don Atkinson and Kevin got interested and into the pony racing with the Tyner family.”
The natural assumption, and indeed Aidan Coleman’s own version is that he followed his brother’s lead to local trainer John Murphy’s and to the pony racing circuit on which he was so successful that when he finished his education– “they were all very good at school and Aidan did a fantastic ‘Leaving Certificate’”, says his mother – he then high tailed over to England first to Henrietta Knight and then on to Venetia Williams with whom he has been going onward and upward ever since. Family memories have it rather more complicated than that.
For a start A Coleman did not seem to fancy it much. “Aidan had no interest when I was around,” says Kevin Coleman with chuckling older brother candour, “Alan who was two years younger was mad for it, we thought he would be the jockey but he is 6 foot 4, Aidan always refused. We were late into the pony thing but when I was about 12 we got a little chestnut called Bubbles and kept him in the garage. If you tried to tell Aidan what to do he would get off and walk home. But we had some stirrups set up on the couch and used to pretend to be jockeys when the racing was on TV. Aidan liked that.”
Eileen Coleman remembers the stirrups on the couch too and the way her younger son took to riding when his older brother had moved on. “He was always very quick to learn,” she says, “and Kevin was prepared to teach him. The day after the Killadee point to point they took Bubbles down to jump the fences and when Aidan was saying he could not do it there were quite a few expletives. Afterwards I was worried that Kevin had been too hard on him but Aidan said to me “Mum, if you had been there, I would not have done it.”
All of Eileen’s children bar Aidan have now gone to the University of Limerick but despite, or maybe even because of, her teaching background, she was happy to let the older boys follow their racing dreams. “People said ‘what a waste’ when Kevin went straight to being a jockey but Pat and I never doubted any of the children. Aidan was very single minded and focussed. He did well at John Murphy’s and in the pony racing, he got himself spells with Pat Doyle and David Wachman in the holidays, he had HE HAD ONE SUMMER WITH JOHN HAMMOND IN CHANTILLY and it was John Murphy who got him TO THERE AND to Henrietta Knight’s.”
There were only five unsuccessful race rides in that 2006-7 season but for Aidan there was tuition beyond price. “I had never had a proper riding lesson,” he recalls, “I had just got on with things and jumped whatever came however I could. But ‘Hen’ sent me round and round in the loose school and took me back to basics. She is a real horsewoman, she has ridden round Badminton and it was terrific to learn from her and to be around as great a man as Terry who had been champion jockey and taught me so much respect for other riders and how much I still have to learn.”
Henrietta’s memory is of a very straight, very talented but rather homesick young man. “He was totally dedicated,” she says, “but used to get some wonderful bollockings from Terry for riding too short. It was obvious that he could go places and Sam Thomas, who was riding a bit for me, said there would be openings for a conditional at Venetia’s where he was stable jockey. It was a great chance for Aidan and my, hasn’t he taken it.”
The statistics and part of Coleman’s own version of events suggest that everything has been going swimmingly ever since with 28 winners in the first season, 55 and the Conditional Title in the second, a career best last season and Emperor’s Choice’s Welsh National coming just a fortnight after Niceonefrankie’s valuable success in Cheltenham’s Caspar Caviar Gold Cup on December 13th. But, as others will testify and he himself will admit under further questioning there have been times when his frustrations have boiled over and there remain doubts as to how far he can climb from is present position of sixth in the jockey’s table. At Newbury last Monday it took Venetia Williams a big smile and a long pause before she chose the words carefully. “It has taken a while,” she said, “for him to find a way of handling the ups and downs of the game.” JERRY ROBERTS, her long serving travelling head lad, was not so reticent. “He can be in a black mood if something has got beaten,” said Gerry cheerfully of the long time stable jockey, “best to leave him for a while and it all blows over.”
Aidan’s own take on it is one on which his sports psychology studying brother could be proud. “The only way to learn to deal with the bad days is to experience them,” he says. “In many ways I had too easy, I never had a bad period and that is sometimes not the best grounding. I started riding winners straightaway, my first winner out of my claim was Kayf Aramis at the Cheltenham Festival, I was Champion Conditional. It is hard to be mentally unflappable when things go wrong if you have never had a bad experience. But I think I have grown up a lot.”
The most famous “bad day” he has had to deal with came in April 2009 when he rode to ride stable mate Stan rather than Venetia Williams’ other runner Mon Mome in the 2009 Grand National despite having got round to finish 10th on Mon Mome as a 19 year old the previous season. Publicly he was gracefully diplomatic. “It was a great success for the whole team at Venetia’s, which I’m over the moon about, and I’m particularly pleased for Liam (Treadwell),” he told Tom O’Ryan for this paper. “He and I have always helped each other at Venetia’s and nobody deserves a big victory more than him.” Privately he took it much harder.
His relationship with Treadwell never faltered but he was tormented with the thought that very few people get the chance to ride a National winner and he had passed his up. “For a while I didn’t think he would get over the Grand National thing,” said Kevin Coleman from Kinsale where he was celebrating Christmas with his parents and the two other siblings. “That was serious business and his head was fried. But now every time he loses he can deal with it. He rings me after the races and I listen knowing that you don’t say what you want to say until the time is right. Then I tell him what he does good and what he does bad. I think you need that all the time whether it is praise or constructive criticism.”
“Once he set his mind to it the riding was almost too easy for him,” Kevin continued with the insight of a student who has himself had experience of topping a sporting peak when winning the 2007 Galway Plate and then endured the agonies of injuries and lack of confidence to further his education in the academic fold. “You should see the pictures of him at ten or eleven, they are amazing. Everyone was telling him how great he was so he never lacked confidence but if we had pushed him he might never have ridden again. He was like one of those mulish horses that you have to coax rather than push.”
Today any mulish traces are buried pretty deep as Kevin’s young brother sets about the top sportsman’s challenge of trying to convert the better into best. At 26 years old and ten seasons in, he brings many assets to the table. Despite being nearly six foot he wakes up under ten stone and during a brief spell on the flat two summers ago tipped the scales as low as 9 stone 4lbs. He has an enviably poised and forward tilting technique. He is in his 8th season with the dependable and resurgent Venetia Williams stable. He has a settled home life with a house near Tewkesbury which he shares with fellow jockey Alain Cawley and to which his Oxford student girl friend Emily Boultbee Brooks is a welcome visitor at weekends. He has his brother to call on and has a rock solid relationship with his agent Sam Stronge who describes him as “now the complete package.”
The jockey’s role used to be almost wholly about race riding and a rider like Jeff King could dismount and utter the infamous verdict “the only way your horse will win a race is inside a greyhound.” Coleman, under Venetia Williams guidance, has become close to diplomacy himself. “Every race is a big race for somebody,” he says earnestly. “A moderate horse is still someone’s pride and joy and they are paying bills for it. As I see it, I am unbelievably lucky to be paid to do a job that I love and so I should be doing it just as well on a weekday as I should be in the Welsh National or whatever.”
Spending time around Aidan Coleman is an enjoyable and impressive experience but avoid it although he would wish, there remains an elephant in the room. It is whether, for all his excellence, he can ever be a realistic challenger for the jockeys’ title when McCoy and then Johnson finally yield to the advancing years. In sixth place he remains ten behind Brian Hughes and a full 40 adrift of Sam Twiston Davies his fellow twenty somethings in the top ten. He has ridden 14 winners at Group Two and Group Three Level but not as yet any in the Group One category and except for the promising Zamdy Man there are few possibilities from his training stable. Should he, like some glory hunting soccer striker, seek a transfer or can he get to the top from where he is.
Venetia Williams takes the question with the calm retort “where would he go?” conscious of the fate of her previous jockey Sam Thomas whose defected to Paul Nicholls and despite the glory of Denman saw his career quickly shrivel under the extra pressure. She can also talk with the confidence of a proven trainer who continues to attract influential owners like Andrew Brooks who could yet take the stable up to another level. As agent Sam Stronge echoed , “THE GRASS IS OFTEN GREENER ON THE OTHER SIDE.”
Aidan himself is wary of discussing the dilemma but tackles it with erudition worthy of his brother’s thesis. “Any sportsman needs ambition,” he says. “If you go home contented with what you have done you are not going to improve. I am very happy with how things are going yet while it’s great being fourth or fifth in the table as I have in the last few years but I want to be challenging for first. With AP around that’s an impossible task but those of us in our twenties could be the one who will be around. But I am unbelievably lucky to be doing this at a high level and have so much support and you have to keep a balance or it will drive you TO AN EARLY GRAVE.”
His first winner under official rules had come with a when a talented but unwilling Aga Khan reject made all in a selling hurdle at Uttoxeter in October 2007. But the first time Aidan Coleman had actually flashed past a winning post was on a flashy little pony called Magical Dancer in a pony race at Buttevant. Historians will remember that it was in 1752 that Edmund Blake raced CORNELIUS O’Callaghan over ditches, stone walls and hedges from Buttevant Church to St Mary’s, Doneraile and steeplechasing was born. That boy on Magical Dancer could yet be making racing history of his own.