RACING POST – 19-12-2010
Gary “The Heat” Murray had not met Sam Waley Cohen before but he was loving it. “I’m a beast,” he said with scary, hollow-cheeked delight as he forced his client into an extra, grunting effort in the boxing ring. It was but the latest proof that 28 year old Sam has his fun by taking it seriously.
He may have had a mere 13 rides and a single winner this season (and only 22 in all) but anyone doubting that Long Run’s jockey is a bit more focussed than the dare devil champagne-swigging amateurs of yesteryear should have climbed into the ring with Gary “The Heat” at Gymbox in London’s super modern Westfield Centre next to Shepherds Bush last week. It may have been back in August 1995 that Gary crowned a 26 bout winning streak by beating someone called Buck Smith (himself famous for once having not just twelve fights in a month but two on the same day) to win the WBU welterweight title in Durban, but the 43 year old Glaswegian remains ferociously demanding.
“1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5,” barks Gary as Waley Cohen pummels away at the big pads on Murray’s hands and into the round leather target strapped across the instructor’s middle. He has only subjected himself to “The Heat” in the “Gymbox” because the Algerian “Manni” Mehani, his usual twice weekly torturer, is unable to use their normal Hyde Park work bench for snowdrift reasons. We are 40 minutes into the session and the sweat is beginning to darken the jockey’s slightly foppish hair. The eyes in the sharp featured face may narrow with intensity but signs of flagging have still not come.
Don’t try this one at home over Christmas, but the next exercise in the series involved clutching a large coin-shaped 15 kilo weight to the stomach and doing 20 squats on to a medicine ball. “I have worked with jockeys in South Africa,” says Gary, his Clydeside tones unimpaired by his long sojourn under a different sun, “but this one is very fit and got good hand speed. He knows what he wants.”
Most of all at the moment Sam Waley Cohen wants to do justice to the challenge of riding his father Robert’s Long Run against Kauto Star in the King George VI Chase wherever or whenever it may be run. “In the lead up to these big races,” he says, “you have to treat this as a second job.” He speaks as his Mercedes wings through Holland Park for a website meeting about the Portman Healthcare Group of dental clinics which, as he founded it with some of his family as well as investment money and is a fully hands on chief executive, remains very much his number one pre-occupation.
“Some people say,” he continues, characteristically tackling a problem head on, “that with me on board Long Run will not achieve his potential. But to give him his best chance is also the most important thing for me. If I genuinely thought I was not up to this, I would absolutely get off him. Otherwise I don’t think it would be fair to him, to Dad, or to anyone else.”
Despite Sam’s public school accent, his society friends (he was famously pictured falling over with Kate Middleton while roller skating) and his privileged background, (his father is on the Sunday Times rich list, albeit in a lowly 1,771st place at the last count) there is no trace of arrogance in that last statement. For from an early age he has always sought out challenges and the inspiration of his younger brother Thomas’s long, high-spirited but finally doomed battle with cancer has instilled a “live every day” mantra which makes him anything but a feckless playboy. The new “Tom’s Ward” at the Radclyffe Hospital stands in tribute to the seven figure charity his family raised from far and near.
At St Edwards, Oxford, Sam was a county-capped hockey player and, incongruously in view of his current 10 stone, 5 foot 8 inch frame, played hooker for the 1st XV. But he also persuaded his housemaster to take him to Warwick on February 8th 2000 to have his first ride in public, finishing 4th on his father’s Strong Chairman and later that season he and the same horse jumped round Cheltenham in a Hunter Chase. At Warwick the 17 year old Waley Cohen had already ridden for Britain’s Juniors in three day eventing and had done a show jumping stage with the legend that is Ted Edgar.
Of course it helps if your father, who succeeds Sam Vestey as Cheltenham chairman this spring, was keen enough to himself finish third (to Grittar in the Foxhunters at the 1981 Festival), successful enough to see his Alliance Medical business sold to Dubai Investment Capital for £611m in 2007, and astute enough to get his son the schoolmaster Strong Chairman and then the ex-French cross country winner Down who carried a then 21 year old Sam round the Aintree fences to complete in the Liverpool Foxhunters of 2003. But it was not his father who owned Moscow Dancer when the Peter Monteith trained hurdler landed a well worked coup at Kelso on December 1st of that year and the bus load of Sam’s fellow Edinburgh University Students will not be the last bunch of supporters to profit from young Waley Cohen’s expertise in the saddle.
“He has always been a natural on a horse,” says his father with the slightly circumspect tones reserved for high achieving offspring, “and has never backed away from a challenge he has undertaken. Two days before Liberthine’s first run in Britain Nicky (Henderson) said he did not have a jockey and so I asked Sam if he would like to ride her although it meant wasting all weekend and it was her first time over fences. They won 8 lengths and he rode her 16 more times winning the Mildmay of Flete at Cheltenham in 2005, the Topham Trophy at Aintree in 2006 and finishing 5th in the National itself in 2007.”
Those victories over racing’s biggest fences, reinforced by consecutive Foxhunters’ successes on the family trained Katarino in 2005 and 2006, meant that it was to Waley Cohen that Nigel Twiston Davies first turned when he was looking for a jockey for Olly Magern in last season’s Grand National. While all this, and tales of scaling mountains in order to ski down, might speak of big race nerve, when Sam comes to analyse his task on Long Run there is also the realism of a young man who got his pilot’s licence at 18 and his helicopter qualification at 21.
“Everybody says I must be so psyched up about riding Long Run against Kauto Star,” he relates as we now speed down the M4 towards Courtrai House, the Henley Dental practice which in 2009 became part of his expanding chain. “But the way I look at it the task is absolutely the same. There may be much more prize money and hullabaloo but there are still just three miles to run and 18 fences to jump and the most important thing is to get your horse jumping well and into a good rhythm.”
“Bar a cock up,” he continues with a smile at the thought, “the difference between me and a good professional would be in a finish but as Long Run is a horse who give you everything, he isn’t going to go any quicker, bar a cattle prod whoever rides him.” The statement is later supported first by no less an authority than 1996 Grand National winner Mick Fitzgerald, “that horse will not lack assistance from the saddle, Sam’s record speaks for itself” and second by the realization, on reaching the dental practice, of quite how far sighted a 28 year old we are dealing with.
“When I left Edinburgh” – (Sam says he would have got a First in politics but for wasting to ride Liberthine at Cheltenham and messing up his dissertation on the U.N.) – “I got a very good job with commodity brokers Louis Dreyfuss in London but then they sent me to Geneva and Paris and it was very difficult to fit everything in. Looking around the weighing room I had been wondering why everyone had such bad teeth and why going to the dentists was such a bad experience. Then on the way to Twesledown one day I saw a dentists on a corner and thought that as so many are one man bands, putting them together in a group, and making it a better experience for both patient and for dentist, was an idea that was begging to be done.”
That was in March 2008. Nine intensive months later the Portman Group launched and two years on it already has seven separate practices on its books around the country and dentists like Courtrai House’s Rebecca Sadler swear by the benefits group efficiency can bring. “My partners and I had been looking to do this before,” says Rebecca who herself has won honours in an England rowing vest, “but I liked Sam’s ideas and I liked Sam too. As for him not being serious, he might pretend he is a bit of a playboy but I am telling you he is not one at all.”
Certainly not in the freezing chill of the huge new indoor school at Membury House next to the M4 service station three miles from Lambourn. Long Run was being shipped up with two other horses from Nicky Henderson’s yard for jumping lessons under the tutelage of Yogi Breisner, the performance director of the UK Equestrian Team and long time “turn to” for jumping trainers of all kinds. The temperature is low enough to ice the joints but Long Run sets about his lessons enthusiastically enough although clouting the poles sloppily at first to revive memories of several less than perfect public jumps since he and Sam opened their English campaign with victory in the Feltham chase over the same Kempton three miles as Sunday’s King George last Boxing Day.
Close up Long Run, (a half brother to the treasured Liberthine) is a tall, alert looking bay with a lean and angular enough front to warrant a breast girth and a keen enough racing stride for Nicky Henderson to this season revert to the ring bit and white sheepskin noseband he wore during his 12 race, 8 victory career with Guillaume Macaire which culminated with Auteuil’s £150,000 Prix Maurice Gillois, France’s top chase for 4 year olds, last November. “He was just tanking a bit in his races,” says Nicky rubbing his hands in the cold, “we thought the noseband would just get him to drop his head and concentrate a little. His jumping is pretty good but he was used to the French way, just flicking through the top of their flimsier fences. He has to do it our way. It’s like learning a different language.”
Down the far side of the school Yogi has put up one low pole and then two higher ones with a fifteen yard gap between them which a horse should cross in three strides. Two of the first three times round, Long Run gets it wrong and has to take four strides and bend his forelegs tight to get over. On him Sam sits still and slightly upright, putting all round balance in front of low crouched style just as he does on the racetrack. As Long Run warms up, his stride lengthens to show an easy accurate athleticism as he soars over the poles.
“I am pleased with that,” says Yogi afterwards. “We did quite a bit of work with the horse last year and in fairness he jumps well enough but he has tended to get a bit low sometimes and all this helps. As for Sam, I have worked with him for a long time and he has a very good head on his shoulders, sees a good stride and is very positive with his horses. He would certainly be as competent as any average professional jockey.”
At the end Long Run has worked hard enough to be sweating beneath his blanket but Waley Cohen is already thinking cooly ahead. “This is good for both of us to get to know each other more. That’s actually one of the advantages of being an amateur and being able to focus specifically on one horse in one race. Long Run is a bit cocky and in his races he has got in too close a few times. But he has jumped round Kempton, Warwick, and twice in big races at Cheltenham, that last time in a very competitive two and a half-miler which I think puts more pressure on your jumping than anything. I think he is still improving . Against Kauto Star we are obviously up against it but we just have to run our own race and focus on getting it right.”
Before every race Sam Waley Cohen sits down in a corner of the weighing room, shuts his eyes and visualises exactly what he will do from start to finish. There is fun in those dreams. But it is serious fun. Because they are winning ones.