Waley-Cohen avoids amateur dramatics
TO some people, Sam Waley-Cohen is best known for crashing to the floor while roller skating with Kate Middleton. To others, he is the engaging amateur jockey entrusted with staying upright on the horse most likely to spoil Kauto Star's Christmas party.
Waley-Cohen (28) is a very modern Corinthian, not just a friend of the royals, but a successful young businessman who has a helicopter licence, rides motorbikes, goes bungee jumping and white-water rafting. The love of speed and risk translates to his principal hobby and his abiding dreams.
If racing survives at Kempton Park on St Stephen's Day, Waley-Cohen will don the familiar chocolate-and-orange silks of his father Robert to ride Long Run in the William Hill King George VI Chase. Only Kauto Star, bidding for history with a fifth win in the race, is a shorter price.
"There are two results which would be great for racing," Waley-Cohen said. "Either the popular king will be re-established on the throne or the bright new star that racing needs will win. I can't bring myself to consider any other outcome."
This is a seriously big deal for the father and son from Warwickshire. "Everyone involved in the King George will get excited in the days leading up to it, but it's a lifetime dream for Dad and me," Waley-Cohen explained. "We've been excited about it ever since I pulled up on Long Run last December 26."
That day saw Long Run's eagerly awaited British debut, after a prodigious record of eight wins from 12 runs in France. He did not disappoint. Placed straight into Grade One company, in the Feltham Novices' Chase, he won by 13 lengths.
"There was a huge amount of pressure," the jockey recalled. "Long Run had such a big reputation, but he'd never run in Britain, he'd never run over three miles and I'd never ridden him over fences. There were a lot of questions to answer.
"This year, I know him really well and life is a lot easier for having ridden exactly the same course and distance, 365 days ago. For me, the task at hand is getting him round and trusting that will be good enough."
Waley-Cohen is keenly aware that scepticism will abound. The horse has proved his talent, despite being beaten on his past two runs. The jockey comes with the inevitable baggage of a part-timer. This jumps season is eight months old but Waley-Cohen has had only 13 rides and one winner.
"I have enormous respect for all the guys in the weighing-room. People will wonder if there is tension between them and an amateur like me, but they have seen me sweating in the sauna and bearing similar bruises to their own. I've never earned a penny from racing and I never will. My approach is to have fun, but having fun is winning races. I take a very professional attitude to preparation and dedication.
"Keeping fit is one of the big pressures, but I run most days and box in a London gym with a trainer. Boxing is all about rhythm and power -- it keeps you balanced and there are good correlations with race-riding."
Such activities have to be accommodated within a hectic schedule. Waley-Cohen may have a monied background, but he is no idle dilettante. As chief executive of Portman Healthcare, the company he founded, he now oversees a growing empire of seven dental practices.
"I have to find time for fitness in a day that is already busy. That does get harder as the business expands, but it's all about being organised. On top-class horses, you have to be on top of your game, not just for yourself but to be fair to everyone else involved. For every stride Long Run has taken on a racecourse, he's had about 100 man-hours put into him. I never forget that."
Long Run is trained in Lambourn by Nicky Henderson. The same was true of Liberthine, his half-sister and a horse that will always have a poignant place in the Waley-Cohen hearts. Her victory at the 2005 Cheltenham Festival came only weeks after Sam's younger brother, Tom, died of cancer aged just 20.
Tom had been a schoolfriend of Middleton, which led to the embarrassing incident on roller skates. "Katherine very kindly wanted to help raise money for a cancer charity in Thomas' memory," Sam said. "We were skating together at the roller-disco event, and, funnily enough, I was wearing our second racing colours under my jacket."
It has been said that Waley-Cohen was responsible for reuniting Ms Middleton and Prince William after their brief split in 2007. For that, he has become a regular subject in tabloid gossip columns. Typically, he dismisses it casually.
"What I like about racing is that it doesn't matter what your life is, away from the track," he said. "Mostly, people are completely oblivious to what else I do, which is how I prefer it."
He may also prefer the fact that Long Run will not start favourite on St Stephen's Day. The Waley-Cohens will go into a race with the focus of attention trained elsewhere.
"It's a real partnership between Dad and me," he said. "We will grumble at each other, but we're good at keeping it in perspective -- we never get remotely heated.
"People criticise Long Run's jumping and it's true he is not the most fluent. If there is a chink in him, that's it, but I do think it's been overblown. I never get on him thinking it will be an achievement just to get round.
"He has never finished outside the first three, which is a great testament to his attitude. I remember being at Auteuil with Dad when we first saw him. The relationship with Liberthine was a big factor, but he was also an imposing horse. He had a real personality."
Rather like his jockey. (© The Times, London)