2 November 2003
Like father like son, 19-year-old James Davies follows his Grand National-winning father, Hywel, on the path to riding glory. Seeing them together, watching the sweet style of young James in the saddle, can make the ascent seem inevitable, even easy. It won’t be.
Hywel was originally a little Welsh hustler from out by Cardigan Bay. He show-jumped ponies throughout the country but, by the time he got to college, he had become a tall youth hooked on racing. Last Suspect’s 1985 Grand National was the most famous of 800 winners worldwide. Today he is a still-animated 46-year-old with fingers in horse feed and sports entrepreneurial pies. The lines in his face tell you he has ridden the roller-coaster. For James, with a physique bird-like in its slenderness and features almost angelic in their innocence, all the hustle is up ahead.
At 5ft 7in and not even 9½ stone, he is some 3in and 10lb slighter than his father. With a pony club start in polo, not show jumping, a year at Ian Balding’s Kingsclere academy and a dozen rides on the Flat, he is already a neater, more stylish figure than the long-legged force that was H Davies in the saddle. He and his father have been the subject of a BBC documentary, Plumpton racecourse have sponsored him for the season; with 20 winners he leads the Young Riders’ (Conditional Jockeys) table. Last week’s bookings took him from Bangor to Wetherby. Hywel’s boy could be getting hot.
“I am really enjoying it, I always wanted to do it,” he said. “Dad and Brendan [Powell, the trainer and former Grand National-winning jockey to whom he is now attached] have been very helpful, and dad and I go through the videos every evening when I get home. I know there is a long way to go and a lot to learn but I am working hard at making myself better in all departments.”
The statements were touching in their youthful freshness. He was about to pull on his helmet to ride a blinkered filly called Glass Note over hurdles. Behind him Richard Johnson leant against the saddle rail with, at 26, almost a senior citizen’s smile. “He’s good,” said Richard, who this season is launching his strongest assault yet on Tony McCoy’s championship monopoly. “There are quite a few good boys around now. I hope he makes it.”
Within minutes Glass Note had served up her own little lesson into just how tough the game can be. Pulling hard going to the second hurdle she suddenly cocked her jaw, altered course left, and took her young rider humiliatingly off the track. It can happen to anyone but somehow you don’t think Johnson would fall for it.
In an instant great expectations become disgruntled disappointment. Glass Note’s jink shows the need for power as well as prettiness. What was the young centaur behind the goggles has become a sad-faced boy walking back on pipe-cleaner legs to face the music. There will be many such moments in the months ahead. But there will also be plenty of winners as more and more trainers take advantage of the 5lb allowance James brings until his winning total passes the 60 mark.
The challenge will be to live and learn through the opportunities which arrive. Because of his name he will get more of these than many of his rivals, but as his father’s son he will be learning his trade under much greater public scrutiny. He only has to look at Tom Scudamore, champion Peter’s highly competent 21-year-old, to see how the first blaze of glory soon settles back into the daily slog of the most brutal 12-month schedule in sport.
Fortunately, those closest to him are as candid as they are complimentary. “He is a really, really nice kid,” says Ian Balding, “and he has improved out of all recognition. Just 18 months ago I put him on my hunter in our local point-to-point. The old horse jumped brilliantly, it was James’ first winner, but he hadn’t a clue how to cross a fence. He’s a lovely, quiet horseman but he is still very light, almost frail-looking; the big question is whether he is going to be tough enough to survive.”
Powell is equally realistic. “He’s hopeless at schooling,” says the man whose 1988 Becher’s Brook heroics on the virtually capsised Rhyme ‘N’ Reason rank high in all the horsemanship of the Aintree story. “He doesn’t yet know how to teach them. But out on the track he sets them up beautifully. So I am just letting him find his own method.”
Which brings us to the father, at once the key supporter and the potential problem. With Hywel divorced, the two Davies live together as bachelors near Lambourn, senior washing, junior ironing, but sport is littered with examples of the sire who becomes Svengali, hot-housing the young talent only to leave the individual short of the resources to make it on his own. Hywel recognises this.
“James always wanted to copy me, even accept a second helping if I had one,” he says. “I try not to get involved with the horses on the day. Russ James books all the rides. But we talk all the time about tracks, going, judging pace. I run through those sort of things and stop him getting into bad habits.”
“His mother and I are very blessed and my heart misses a beat every time he jumps a fence. Falls will happen and he has to prove he is not just H Davies’s boy. He is a lovely gentleman but there can be quite an anger deep down. He really wants this. He is very, very dedicated. Believe me, there is a real streak of steel in him.”
Jumping’s pitiless abiding truth is that there will have to be.