10 December 2000

The former top jockey, who has ridden racing’s rollercoaster to the limit, offers encouragement to the next generation of talent

Just six kids in a classroom. It was a long way from the glittering ceremony which on Monday saw Ray Cochrane honoured once again for his courage in saving Frankie Dettori’s life in the plane crash at Newmarket last June. But Thursday afternoon at the Racing School was also work for others. By coincidence it was the 20th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. “Help,” went the Beatles song, “I need somebody.”

The six young jockeys, four boys and two girls in their late teens or early 20s, were on the British Racing School’s Apprentice Continuation Course in Newmarket. Over three days experts brief them on technique, diet, rules, fitness and even sports psychology. In truth, although the diminutive Angela Hartley has clocked up six winners from 130 rides, championships are an unlikely target. But racing has lured them in because of the jockey’s dream. They neeed aspiration and inspiration. They, and we, can learn from Ray Cochrane.

The 43-year-old Ulsterman finally gave in to his injuries last month and next year will join Frankie as the Italian’s agent. Apart from the effects of the plane crash which still leaves blurred vision in the right eye, Cochrane had concussive falls before and after the tragedy in which pilot Patrick Mackey died, and on Aug 21 everything was compounded when a stirrup iron broke in a gallop and Cochrane’s battered spine began to cry enough. But that is negative. In that little room in Newmarket the kids were being urged to look on the positive side.

“You have got to make the best of yourselves, so you have,” said Cochrane, a neat, trim, figure only 7lb over the honed down 8-7 of his riding days and emphasising the last line of a sentence as his countrymen do. “When you go out to the paddock, look smart and ready. Look the owner and trainer in the eye.

“Listen to what they say. Think when you are out on the track. Thank them afterwards for the ride. Whether or not you make it Flat racing, there are opportunities in jumping, in work riding, in training around the world. There is a future for you in the game.”

Sometimes you need to take such words to warm hands grown cold and weary with racing’s venality and factionalism. A week which was to end with yesterday’s tremendous card at Cheltenham was disfigured by accusations of dirty dealing on the new £400 million TV contract and by the ludicrously inept unveiling of a new security code apparently banning jockeys and trainers from speaking to anyone bar the stable cat for fear of bookmaker contamination.

Of course, funding must be found and regulations must be firm, but to give young people hope you need heroes. As ever with kids in classrooms it was hard to read just how much they were absorbing. But when they reflect on Cochrane’s record they will realise that they were close to the real thing.

For a career, whose highlights included Khayasi’s Derby and Midway Lady’s Oaks and 1,000 Guineas, was only achieved by perseverance through brutal injury and unrelenting years of weight control. The first pyrotechnics, nine winners on the two-year-old filly, Nagwa, in 1975, were brought crashing to earth with a pelvis-shattering fall early the next season. By the time Cochrane resumed a year later, the weight had risen to force him into the jumping game where he might have struggled on but for another horrible accident which would have dispirited all but the brave.

“I was dressing a horse over in the afternoon,” he recalled in the immaculately well-appointed bungalow he and wife Anne share in a little village near Cambridge. “Another lad came in with a ladder to fix the roof, the horse spooked and crashed me against the wall. I was really broken up but when I eventually recovered I was so light that I had the chance to go Flat racing again.”

So it was that one May morning of 1983, he rode a big black two-year-old called Chief Singer in a gallop at Newmarket. “The leader was a good horse called Teamwork,” Cochrane said. “He had got a long way ahead but when I asked Singer to go the response was incredible. He set his neck and just went. I have never felt anything like it.” Chief Singer won at Royal Ascot first time out, and next year swept up the St James’s Palace, July Cup and the Sussex Stakes. Cochrane, the best exponent of the classic all-round balance technique of his era, was on his way.

But it was not the glamour times he talked to the apprentices about. Nor was it the Dick Francis saga of his early morning arrest [and later release without charge] as part of racing’s bungled £3 million corruption inquiry which eventually collapsed this year. Nor, most poignantly, was it about that windy morning of the first of June when the little plane bumped on take-off and his and Frankie Dettori’s lives could never be the same.

“Obviously the worst thing is worrying how you should have saved the pilot,” he says. “When I first got Frankie out, I turned to go back but then realised that he couldn’t walk and had so much blood on his face he couldn’t see. After I had dragged him away I actually got the door of the plane open and began to get back in. But the wind was blowing the flames over the cockpit and the whole thing went up in my face, so it did.”

No, for the apprentices, he does not want to talk headlines but breadlines. “Your weight,” he says, looking at a couple of them already over 5 ft 6 in tall, “is going to be the hardest thing of all. It’s not just dieting. It’s about re-structuring the way you think and eat. If you want to drink lager and go on binges, this is not the life for you. It can be very hard, [he himself used to walk five or six miles every morning as part of the most Spartan regime in the weighing room]. But if you can accept the discipline the rewards can be great.”

On the way home to where his big yellow Honda 600 motorbike still stands monument to his traffic beating plan for the year 2000, he thinks back to his early days. “I wish someone had told me more about what we should do,” he remembers, “we have some very good young jockeys around, Lee Newman, Robert Winston, Royston Ffrench. But they all hit a bad patch when they came out of their apprenticeship. I would like to give them hope.”

And hope is the ultimate help.

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