Why risk the guaranteed glories of the morning for the uncertain promises of the afternoon? No young rider has ever faced this dilemma more exactly than amateur jockey Nico de Boinville who is aboard Long Run and Sprinter Sacre every day after sunrise but who will pitch himself into the professional jockeys arena after Cheltenham.
At the moment the 23 year old from Hampshire starts his morning with the most envied and most important dual task racing can offer as Festival Fever rages to its March conclusion. Long Run and Sprinter Sacre are the greatest of all the stars that sparkle in the Nicky Henderson string. Both are already champions in their category. Long Run is out to regain the Gold Cup he won in 2011 and Sprinter Sacre ready to extend his unbeaten record over fences by winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase. But both are also big, powerful steeplechasers drawing almost 550 kilos on the weigh bridge and neither are the sort you would want to mess about.
“They are both quite straightforward to ride,” says Nico, “but they both like their own space indoors. I think a lot of good horses can be like that. Long Run can be quite moody and grumpy in his box and “Sprinter” is always threatening to kick the crap out of Sarwah Mohammed who does him. They are both magnificent big horses but they are different shapes to ride. Long Run does not have so much in front of you but there is so much power behind that he would actually be a little heavier than Sprinter Sacre who has this tremendous neck and shoulder but is not quite as solid beneath.”
“They are different in their work too,” he says with the informed voice of the boxing second rather than a mere admiring bottle carrier. “Long Run can pull hard for a furlong but after that he will only do as much as you ask him. Sprinter Sacre takes a good solid jumper’s pull and you have to be sure to keep the handbrake on so that he does not do too much. It is a fantastic privilege to be riding horses like these,” he adds, “I only took on Long Run last year after Tom Symonds left to go training on his own. Long Run was very much Tom’s baby but I have been with Sprinter Sacre ever since he was a raw bumper horse who had come over as part of a job lot from France. I was the first to school him over fences and while Long Run is brilliant and I won’t have those who slate his jumping, “Sprinter” is out of this world. I have never, will never, sit on anything like it.”
For many people this dual responsibility would be dreams enough but the young man who occupies the most important saddles of a morning rages with other thoughts about the afternoons. “I know I am quite unhealthily ambitious,” he says of his plan to abandon his attractive amateur status which last week saw him invited up north to ride at both Musselburgh and Kelso, “But I can’t continue as I am and I am determined to give it my all.”
They are good words but there is a sad familiarity about them as they echo so many young butterflies that are soon broken on jump racing’s brutal wheel. Just as only one in a thousand of the four legged symbols of promise ever make it to any sort of eminence on the track, so only very few of the would-be champions of the saddle make it to the higher plateaus of the game as fortune and injuries batter the body and torment the soul. But De Boinville has a back story every bit as intriguing as the two champions he rides out over the Lambourn Downs. For a start he too has a serious French connection.
Indeed it goes back a fair bit further than either the story of Long Run’s dam LIbertina who bred Sam Waley Cohen’s life changing Kim Muir winner Liberthine, or Sprinter Sacre’s mother Fatima III who was the only mare owned by her breeder Christopher Masle. The Castel de Boinvilles go back to the guillotine. If it hadn’t been for the French Revolution, it might be Nicolai rather than the Holy Sisters of the Convent who now reside in the family chateau in the Lorraine. Quite a few heads did role into the guillotine’s basket but the De Boinvilles who got to London were made of pretty special stuff and, although he is anxious only to be judged as a potential jockey, there appears to be plenty of that ingredient in the rider that currently bears their name.
He may be a privately educated son of privilege but he has been little short of a prodigy along the way both in the saddle and the schoolroom. His father works in the city, his mother runs the local Montessori School attended by Andrew Balding’s children, and exams are clearly not a problem. Nico won an Open Scholarship to Bradfield and top marks in three A Levels meant he sailed up to Newcastle destined as a high achiever. But his absolute favourite subject was not on the curriculum. As an actor he had played all sorts of lead roles in school productions, yet the part of the free-wheeling student proved to be beyond him.
“He didn’t just like riding, he needed it,” remembers his mother Shaunagh with a mixture of wonder and concern. “Of course it was in the genes a bit, my sister Philipa rode at Badminton and I was on the British dressage squad. But Nico was completely obsessed with it. He was rising at the trot before he was two. He would have been hyperactive if it hadn’t been for ponies. When he was 9 years old he was Supreme Champion in the “Search for a Star” class at the Horse of The Year Show at Wembley on a six year old first pony which had not been off the leading rein six months earlier. He was hugely helped by Richard and Marjorie Ramsay where he went whenever possible. When he was about 10 he came in at lunchtime and said “I have ridden five ponies this morning but I wish it had been seven and all at Wembley.”
Shaunagh’s efforts to steer her children into the less risky world of dressage were rewarded by Nico winning the Junior Section and being third overall in the Pony Club Dressage Championships. But her sister’s example soon saw her son competing eagerly in events and team chases and, worse still, the fact that Philipa’s husband was the trainer Patrick Chamings and that Nico’s grandfather was an ardent watcher of racing on TV meant that Mrs De Boinville was unlikely to dowse the siren call of the racing game. For his gap year, the would-be Politics graduate went to work with trainer Richard Gibson in Chantilly. It was not the sort of epiphany a schoolteacher would necessary plan, but it was a life-changer all right.
“He worked the butt off me,” says Nico whose lean cheeks have a red blush about them as if the student face was still surprised by so much open air. “But I woke up every morning looking at the Chateau, he took me everywhere, I rode a lot and I had to really learn French. What’s more Richard even gave me two rides at Fontainebleu which finished second and third although I did smack my nose coming out of the stalls on the first one and finished with blood all over my silks.”
Bloodied in every sense, De Boinville came back across the channel with a new focus which saw a couple of rides for his uncle Patrick Chamings and two for near neighbour Andrew Balding, one of which, Western Roots at Newbury on the 3rd August 2008, etched himself forever in the mind as the first winner of the jockey’s career. Following the story so far it might seem an obvious, almost easy leap to the present position where Mr N de Boinville is the most sought after amateur in the land, has ridden headline winners for his mentor Nicky Henderson, and whose televised success in the Welsh National on Carruthers three weeks ago took his prize money total to over £100,000. In fact the four and a half years in between have been racked by so much perceived failure and frustration that in November he formed up to Henderson intent on returning to France unless things turned out better than the two winners and just 15 rides that he had managed to glean from the famous Seven Barrows stable since he joined in 2009.
“I said I thought that he was being a bit hasty,” says the trainer in that jocular manner that doesn’t quite conceal a profound knowledge of the business. “Of course he was getting frustrated but I had always told him that there could be no promises. And anyway he then got on Petit Robin in a big handicap in December and he kept the ride on him to be second in the Ladbroke at Ascot and fourth in the Betfair last week at Newbury. From the very beginning you could see he was a natural horseman. Corky (Browne, Henderson’s legendary assistant) was on to him straightaway to get started with our babies. He had lovely hands but what was missing was racing experience. Being a good rider is one thing, being a race rider is another. Now he looks as if he has given himself a chance.”
In fact the frustration had been building since long before the Seven Barrows showdown and had begun with a real crisis not three months after that thrilling first victory at Newbury. De Boinville went up to Newcastle and hated every minute of it. After six weeks he came home and told his parents he could not go on. “He was actually in a very bad place both physically and mentally,” remembers his mother, “and it took him some time to get together again. But we had a point to pointer he got started on and he spent a lot of time with my brother in law. Then in the summer of 2009 he approached Nicky Henderson.”
The trainer was frank. He said Nico could come and work but there could be no guarantee of race rides. In fact there was just one that first season, five more the next, and just nine last term albeit with the high profile benefit of two victories on the Queen’s horse Barber’s Shop. This season there have been only seven more race rides for the stable but the successes on both Petit Robin and State Benefit have been the very best of calling cards.
“When I first met the guvnor,” says Nico, “he said he already had six jockeys but he did leave me with one phrase – ‘remember the cream always rises to the top.’ It’s been very frustrating with absolutely no winners. But in 2011 I was lucky enough to be picked for Britain in the international Fegentri championship, travelled a lot and rode a winner in Norway. At the beginning of this season the guvnor got me linked up with agent Dave Roberts who has been a big help in getting me outside rides. I claim seven pounds and said I would ride anything so I was doing 9 stone 7 and scrubbing round the back but I was at last getting some practice.”
The arrival of Roberts on the scene has brought a tighter focus to De Boinville’s career in more ways than one. This month a bill for £700 arrived for the agent’s share of the money won by the jockey’s horses but of which, being an amateur, the rider cannot receive. Turning professional may be full of risk but at this juncture it is the only affordable option and with rides like Henderson’s State Benefit in the Kim Muir and other possibilities in the offing there is the chance that he can get the kick start of promotion that only a Festival winner can give.
All credit to him for trying. Racing never has much space for faint hearts and it will be truly fascinating to see if Nico can fashion himself fresh opportunities out of the profile his current position still gives and add a winning edge to the easy flowing, rounded horsemanship that is already his trademark. “I like his attitude when we are schooling together,” says stable jockey Barry Geraghty. “He is always riding for the horse not to try and attract attention to himself. He lets the fences come to him and gets the horse to learn to pop. If someone had got excited and put a gun to Sprinter Sacre’s head he could have been a long time learning. Nico was the man who started him.”
Henderson can’t promise anything and neither should he. But what he does do is give the very best of references. “He is a very committed and serious young man,” he says of De Boinville, “and the part he and the other good riders play in the training process cannot be overestimated. You like to leave the same people on these good horses because they know the small things. There may be only the tiniest of things wrong, so tiny that another rider would not even notice. But it’s spotting these tiny things that can make all the difference.”
Nico de Boinville is about to embark on one of the most unforgiving challenges in sport. He brings great gifts with him but they will not stop the falls and fractures and falsehoods that lie between him and the glorious uplands where the champions have the heady thrill of riding top horses every week. The odds, as always, are against him. But the best way to shorten them is to first make his present role a winning one. “To be riding horses like Long Run and Sprinter Sacre every morning means that they are always in the forefront of your mind – and they are just two. Compared to all those that the guvnor must have going round his head, I have an easy job.”