Coleman rolling with the punches as shot at more Welsh glory looms
Ferguson decision to quit a blow, but Aidan Coleman tells Richard Forristal of his improved mindset
Published 24/12/2015 | 02:30
It was an episode in the aftermath of last year's Welsh Grand National that illustrated the man that Aidan Coleman had become.
The Chepstow marathon had demonstrated his already well-established refined qualities as a rider.
He used his initiative to coax Emperor's Choice into the lead on concluding that the early fractions weren't strong enough, and thereafter dictated at an even tempo, calmly ensuring that he maintained control when others sought to unsettle his mount.
Aggressive when he needed to be at fences and restrained when the stride demanded it, Coleman didn't panic when Emperor's Choice's turkey looked cooked at the top of the home straight.
He kept rowing away, and then, having touched down in third over the final fence and apparently the clear third favourite to collect, he got serious. It was a slow-motion frenzy.
Coleman drove Venetia Williams' charge back up to thwart Benvolio, which was ridden by his best pal Sam Twiston-Davies, by a short-head. It was a complete piece of riding that highlighted his horsemanship as well as his innate determination.
Cue widespread dismay a fortnight later, then, when the British Horseracing Authority announced that it was to retrospectively hold an inquiry into Coleman's use of the whip.
Despite earning unanimous acclaim for the measured way in which he had galvanised his mount, the precise nature of the current whip rules in Britain prompted the regulator to conclude that the stewards on the day had been asleep on the job. Maybe they had simply elected to deploy common sense, perish the thought. Anyway, Coleman was duly slapped with a four-day ban.
It was an inexplicable decision at odds with his composed endeavours throughout the gruelling three-mile-five-furlong event, but he wouldn't allow it detract from his biggest triumph.
"A couple of Musselburghs, something like that," was how he elected to play down what he would miss out on. Coleman refused to be drawn on the circumstances that led to the delayed sanction and promptly stated that he wouldn't appeal the decision.
"Regardless of whether the ride was good or bad or whether you agree with the rules, the rules are still the rules and it's not up to me to say the rules are wrong. I've gone over the limit; I didn't know it at the time. I'd hate it to get labelled as a 'win at all costs' ride."
In an instant, he had defused what could have escalated into an unseemly and protracted debacle. It was an unambiguously mature response, and the intervening 12 months have served only to confirm the impression that the 27-year-old from Innishannon in Co Cork is now a senior pro of some stature.
Indeed, Coleman's diplomacy skills might never have been more valuable than this week. On Tuesday, after we had spoken, it was announced that John Ferguson, who has supplied 58 of his 99 winners this season, is to quit the training ranks at the end of term.
Sheikh Mohammed's National Hunt project seemed to come out of nowhere and the enterprise will disappear into the ether as quickly. A team of 80 jumpers dissolved - just like that.
No one will lose out more than Coleman, although he can take some solace in the fact that he didn't burn bridges to accept the Bloomfields retainer, as Williams remains a devoted supporter.
"The news came as a big shock and is a real blow," he admitted in his Racing UK blog yesterday, before continuing in the fashion we have come to expect.
"It has been a massive honour to ride for John and Bloomfields. It has been a very short association but I will struggle to find a sweeter one.
"John is a fantastic person and, once the season is over, I would love our paths to cross again at some point in the future. It will be interesting to see what next season brings and hopefully there will be some other opportunities which I can grasp with both hands."
In AP McCoy's absence, few have grasped the nettle as much as Coleman, who was succeeding the perennial champion as Ferguson's chosen rider.
On the verge of a breakthrough century, he is second only to Richard Johnson in the jockeys' table. To the outside world, McCoy's departure suggested that the jockeys' championship might be up for grabs again. It is and it isn't.
Johnson has basically picked up exactly where his nemesis left off, sickening the opposition before the season gets going at all. "That is the general consensus," his closest pursuer agrees when it is initially put to him that a perception exists that the championship might no longer be a one-horse race. "And I remember when the next champion jockey betting came out after AP made his announcement, most of them didn't even have Dickie as favourite.
"I think he is nearly as big a certainly to be champion as long as he is riding as AP was. Don't get me wrong, we will try our hardest to make it as hard as possible for him, but Richard Johnson would be by far the winning-most jockey if AP wasn't around and he is by far the second most winning-most jockey.
"I think people might have slightly underestimated him and how difficult it is for anyone else to be champion jockey other than him. We go racing a lot together, and I remember going to Perth with him in the middle of the summer for a two-day meeting.
"I think I had three winners and he had five over the two days, so you could go racing over two days and ride three or four winners and still lose ground on him. That is what he has been doing, and that's what AP did to him."
There is no denying, though, that Coleman has excelled. "It would be nice to finish second this season and it is a good position to be in," he admits.
"You look at Davy Russell. He was there behind Ruby every year but when the opportunities came, he took them. They can never take his two titles off him. This is the first year I've put down a marker and hopefully I can build on it."
The frame of mind required to mount a sustained title challenge is not a given. The intense pressure and gruelling demands involved in chasing or being chased in a close-run thing has broken many a good man.
Not everyone has the even temperament that makes living with the expectation bearable. You have to be able to steel yourself and not let results or distractions affect you or your riding.
While Tuesday's revelation is obviously a blow to his prospects, Coleman's serene poise has fully revealed itself this season. Still, only time will tell if he has the resilience to match his aspirations.
"I'm always of the opinion that anyone can ride a racehorse and most people can ride a good race," he says, "but it is about doing it all day every day for a long time. You can always give a horse a bad ride, but you need to keep it to an absolute minimum.
"It's not your riding, as such, it's the whole package. That's why I think jockeys come into their prime from around my age to the mid-30s.
"The main thing with a jump jockey is there are so many bad days, that you need to build up the strength of character to take them in your stride. It comes with experience.
"You need to get to the point where you could ride four winners and not be dancing on the ceiling, and vice versa; when you ride four favourites and they all get beat, you can't get too down - you have to stay level.
"You see it in Noel Fehily and Barry Geraghty - they are unflappable. It would be great to have their mentality and that is something I'm working on."
Fehily and Coleman hail from the same pony racing hinterland in the Rebel County. Whereas Fehily progressed to hone his craft on the point-to-point circuit in the region, Coleman made straight for the boat after sitting his Leaving Cert in 2006.
The son of two teachers, he had witnessed at first-hand how hard it is here for a regular wannabe when a jockey loses his claim. His brother Kevin, now a sports science undergraduate at University of Limerick, gave him a valuable steer.
Thus, just weeks shy of his 18th birthday, Coleman joined Henrietta Knight's stable, where the former headmistress and her now late husband Terry Biddlecombe educated him in the art of jumping. From there, Coleman progressed to Williams's more rugged outfit in Herefordshire, and soon his initial upward trajectory began, culminating with the 2009 conditional jockeys' title. Now he is knocking loudly on the door to the next level.
Getting the Grade One monkey off his back is a pressing goal, while two cruel twists of fate have denied him a famous Grand National success.
In 2009, he missed out when eschewing Williams' eventual 100/1 winner Mon Mome, and in April he was still in front aboard The Druids Nephew when they slithered to the ground on touching down at the fifth-last fence.
They were tanking at the time but Coleman is philosophical about the hand he was played. "You need to take the positives out of situations like that," he muses. "It goes back to experience too; like with Mon Mome, that was devastating to me - I picked the wrong one.
"This year should have been probably more devastating because The Druids Nephew had done most of the hard work, and potentially he was going the best when he fell. But I got up and dusted myself down. I had to just get over it and that was fine. Looking back now it doesn't hurt, and I suppose that is the experience kicking in.
"It's done. That's that. End of. I can't change it. It was very annoying but it's only as annoying as you let it be - and there is a lot of hard work gone into getting that philosophy about it, a lot of trial and error." Again, in adversity Coleman's character shines through, same as it did in the autumn when he elected not to press charges after being assaulted by four drunken yobs who broke into the jockeys' changing room at Southwell.
"It's time for everyone to move on," was the extent of his contribution when asked about such a magnanimous gesture. Moving on.
It is an admirable big-picture attitude that seems almost to define his mindset, a reluctance to pick fights that might be winnable but aren't worth the hassle.
On Sunday, then, Coleman will move on from Tuesday's blow by going back to Chepstow, the scene of his finest hour, in a quest to repeat the feat.
Emperor's Choice recorded another tenacious triumph at Haydock last month, and is a leading contender to become the first back-to-back winner since Bonanza Boy in 1989. It would be an especially timely fillip.
"Emperor's Choice had a small problem after he won the Welsh National last year and it would have been late spring by the time he was back, so he didn't run again last season," Coleman says of the eight-year-old.
"In a way, that has benefited him, because at Haydock he felt to me better than ever. If he goes to the Welsh National in the same form, I really think he can be a back-to-back winner.
"He hasn't been weighted out of it so it is something to look forward to over Christmas."