Wednesday 23 October 2019

Cobden has what it takes to rule the weigh room

Harry Cobden: ‘I don’t think I’m qualified to work in McDonald’s’. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Harry Cobden: ‘I don’t think I’m qualified to work in McDonald’s’. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Marcus Armytage

If there is a British jockey capable of breaking the decade-long domination of Irish trio Ruby Walsh, Davy Russell and Barry Geraghty at the Cheltenham Festival, it is Harry Cobden, whose promotion last spring to be first jockey to Paul Nicholls has coincided with the trainer's resurgence.

With all three Irishmen turning 40 this year, Cobden, essentially a Somerset young farmer, looks well placed to be involved at the changing of the guard. His talent, combined with a devil-may-care attitude, shrewd business mind, strong work ethic and a touch of arrogance, suggests he might last the trip in his current role, when the shelf life of the incumbents since Walsh has tended to be short and, on occasions, not overly sweet.

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Cobden's parents, Will and Sarah, are hard-working farmers from Lydford-on-Fosse. The jockey and his older brother, James, are now partners in the sheep and beef cattle business at Willow Bank Farm; 95 acres which include 13 bought by the jockey from his earnings as champion conditional.

When Cobden, 20, was a child, the family also used to run the abattoir at Langport. The result of having a slaughterhouse as his playground is that he can cut up and joint a pig, a qualification unlikely to be shared by many weighing-room colleagues.

He still lives at home, although his mother's running threat is that his "suitcase is in the hall" and that she has asked local trainer Ron Hodges, who has always treated him like a son, if he will go through with adoption procedures.

Cobden was still in a nappy when he learnt to ride. At nine, he ran his hunting pony in a pony race but told Hodges on his return that, though it had been great fun, he did not want to finish last. Within a fortnight, Hodges and he had slipped off to Kent and bought one which subsequently won 18 races.

In the summer holidays, he was doing yard work for Hodges, but when the trainer found himself short-staffed, he asked Cobden to ride out, which he did for the rest of the holidays.

"One evening, Ron said 'you've worked hard' and plonked £600 on the table," recalled Cobden. "I had never seen so much cash and, from then on, I always thought making a living out of racing was possible. I still speak to Ron most days and he doesn't miss many of my races."

Cobden was, according to his mother, the child from hell. "If I'd had him first I'd have never had another," she said (and meant it), recalling that he was always wandering off and how, on the occasion that she thought he might have jumped into the farm's slurry lagoon, he was eventually found asleep in a kennel with some puppies. "He's never shown any fear, ever."

That translated to a near-death experience when he took his father's 450cc quad bike and flipped it over in the wet on the farm drive. "I thought we'd lost him," remembers his mother. "He wasn't wearing a helmet and I ran down there. I wrapped my hand in paper towelling and had it inside his scalp trying to staunch the bleeding.

"We drove at 130mph to hospital. He was eight hours in the theatre and had 305 stitches. The surgeon said the only certain thing was that if he'd been wearing a helmet he'd have broken his neck."

On his 16th birthday, Cobden left school without having taken a single GCSE and joined local trainer Anthony Honeyball. "I don't think I'm qualified to work in McDonald's because you need a C in English and maths for that," he pointed out. "On the day I should have been taking an English paper, mother got a call asking where I was. She didn't know but I'd gone to Leicester to ride a 33-1 winner, my first under Rules, in a hunter chase."

There is, however, nothing wrong with his maths, especially when there is a pound sign involved. The year he left school, he bought two pointers from someone who needed to sell. Between them, they won 11 points and he was champion novice rider.

After seven months with Honeyball, Nicholls, for whom he had ridden out in the holidays, asked him to go back to be his conditional jockey. He found his first season difficult. "I had a lot of high-profile rides on the big stage. I rode plenty of winners to start with, then I started riding horses with high weights in 20-runner handicaps and getting beat.

"I'd only had 30-or-so rides and it didn't always go to plan. But you learn, you get better, you grow in confidence. When you start, you think twice about things rather than doing it naturally and it's got easier with experience. The next season, I got a lot of opportunities but when the weight allowance went, so did some of the chances. But last year, in my third season, I also rode 50 winners for Colin Tizzard."

Just before the Grand National meeting last spring, Tizzard offered him the job of first jockey. Three days later, Nicholls asked him the same question. "I said I wanted to think, messed about for a month, had a fantastic Aintree, winning a Grade One on Diego Du Charmil and the Topham on Ultragold. I thought about it quite a lot.

"Paul sent Paul Barber [his landlord and part-owner of Clan Des Obeaux] round and he made me think twice. I never actually said, 'I'll be your first jockey', I just said ,'I'd ride yours and ride plenty of the Tizzards', too.' It's amazing how it's worked out and the reason it works is my agent, Dave Roberts. If I can't ride for Colin at late notice, he can always find him a jockey he likes."

His new job started well. "I rode nine winners in no time and then snapped my neck at Market Rasen. I wanted 100 winners but didn't think that would be realistic after four months off, but I'm on 97 so I'll do it if I don't get injured.

"Last year, Paul had a good team but they didn't look outstanding. Now Clan Des Obeaux is vying for Gold Cup favouritism and Cyrname is the top-rated chaser in the country. Lower down, he's got 20 good bumper horses which will all win novice hurdles next year."

Cobden's interests are best described by his five dogs; two spaniels, a Labrador, a collie and a lurcher. Three days after getting out of hospital having broken his neck, he bought 2,500 pheasant poults to put down on the 900 acres of sporting rights he let last season.

There cannot be too many 20-year-olds running their own shoots, owning their own land, buying their own cattle and, this week, in the thick of it at the Cheltenham Festival, but Cobden is one of them.


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