Sunday 24 March 2019

The grand name for the grandest stage of all

From lasting just six weeks at university to the Cheltenham Festival elite: Nico de Boinville has come a long way

Nico de Boinville has high hopes for this week’s Festival. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Nico de Boinville has high hopes for this week’s Festival. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

It sounds counter-intuitive to talk of a man called Nicolai de Boinville fighting his way to the top, but there was no "leg-up" in life for one of the stars of this week's Cheltenham Festival.

Nico de Boinville, to give him his everyday name, walked into the powerful Nicky Henderson yard in 2009 with an outside chance of making it as a National Hunt jockey. Henderson's stables teemed with A-list pilots - AP McCoy and Barry Geraghty among them.

De Boinville - who rides Might Bite, the favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and Altior, assuming he recovers from lameness in a fore leg, in the Queen Mother Champion Chase - was a university drop-out who might have advanced no further than luxury work rider.

Behold, nine years on: the big-race specialist, the man for the marquee moment. Among De Bonville's major victories are Altior in last year's Arkle Chase and 2016 Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Coneygree in the Gold Cup three years ago and Might Bite in the King George VI Chase at Kempton in December. He also rode Sprinter Sacre in a triumphant comeback in the 2016 Queen Mother Champion Chase.

It was Sprinter Sacre who gave De Boinville his first feel of equine greatness when they were randomly paired at Henderson's yard: "A horse turned up. I was allocated the name of it. Third or fourth lot, quite late on in the morning - and then I thought: I quite like this horse. And it stuck with me."


Stylish and cool under pressure, De Boinville is the antithesis of the gentleman jockey his name evokes.

To ask about that moniker - rooted in French revolutionary times - might seem a bit class conscious, but he smiles when you wonder how much weighing-room banter it unleashed.

"Well, don't forget I'd been at boarding school, so you get very used to the banterish thing," he says.

"Obviously people do rib you, but nothing I couldn't take, or that was going to be nasty or anything. I'd like to think I could give as good as I get. The weighing room is a very honest place. There are no lines there."

The De Boinvilles came to England when the guillotine was dropping too frequently for comfort. Yet his background was not classically National Hunt and there was no pre-laid path into professional jockeyship.

For him, riding was more compulsion than hobby; or, as his mother Shaunagh once said: "He didn't just like riding, he needed it."

At nine years old he was Supreme Champion in the 'Search for a Star' class at Horse of the Year Show.

He says now of his childhood love of riding: "I was fairly obsessed with it. That was what I did. That was my identity when I was younger. As soon as I was born pretty much I was put on a pony, to get rid of all the energy I had."

In his gap year, De Boinville joined Richard Gibson as a pupil assistant in Chantilly. He takes up the story: "It was coming up to the stage where I was going to go to university - and I never really wanted to go to university. Richard gave me my first rides, in France, and I think after that I was fairly hell-bent on giving it a go. Not that I thought I was going to get anywhere."

University was a disaster. De Boinville hated being away from riding. "Yeah, pretty much, and it was cold and miserable. I just never wanted to be there. I went there in the wrong frame of mind. I didn't give it a chance. Six weeks, bang, I was gone.

"I've always been very ambitious in that I wanted to get on, but perhaps when I went in there (at Henderson's yard) I was thinking - if I could become a good amateur that's great. Then I can move on and do something else."

From there to elite Cheltenham Festival finisher is a leap, which his big-race temperament helped him make. He says: "I think so. I've always competed from a very young age, so I've always been subject to that atmosphere - big atmospheres - and you learn to cope with it."

The Festival exerts a special pressure of having to deliver the 'expected' winner (or not mess it up).

"You try and treat it all the same, and try and keep as level as you can," he says. "The more you make it into a big deal, the more it becomes one."

One of his "big deals" is Altior, a potential Cheltenham legend. De Boinville had been speaking confidently about his prospects, explaining that the two months off necessitated by a wind operation "didn't set him back too much".

That, however, was before Henderson confirmed on Monday morning that he had pulled up lame with a leg problem that will require intensive treatment before Wednesday's Champion Chase.

Even so, comparisons between Altior and Sprinter Sacre are unavoidable.

"Sprinter travelled a lot more enthusiastically and was bit more of a hot-head - which Altior used to be in his younger days, but now he seems to have settled down and become very professional," he said.

Might Bite landed De Boinville in his biggest Festival pickle when he jumped the last in the RSA Chase last year then veered towards the Arkle bar before stopping.

De Boinville thought his chance had gone: "Things flash past in your mind so fast, but it's one of pure frustration that it's happening to you, and you're willing for something to happen. And something did happen, in that a loose horse came past (Might Bite decided to chase it). I was just very fortunate to get back up on the line."

He has a habit of being "fortunate" in big events. Another word for it is skill.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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