De Boinville eager to add Kempton showpiece to his CV
When Nico de Boinville's career was shot into orbit by his victory on Coneygree in the 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup while he was still a conditional jockey effectively wearing 'L' plates, he was better known as the work-rider of Sprinter Sacre.
To say his career had been a slow burner at that stage was something of an understatement. He had gone into racing aged 19, he was then 25 and apart from being champion amateur, a title which does not carry the kudos it once did, and winning a Coral Cup on Whisper, that was about it.
Since that day when he made all on Mark Bradstock's novice chaser in steeplechasing's blue riband event, his career has taken off and he has been collecting the sport's marquee jump races at a steady rate. He won the Champion Chase on Sprinter Sacre, the Supreme Hurdle and Arkle on Altior and a remarkable RSA Chase on Nicky Henderson's latest superstar Might Bite, on whom he will bid to add the 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton to his growing collection on St Stephen's Day.
"The Gold Cup was a massive turning point for me," reflected de Boinville, 28, who will marry Serena Cookson in the summer. "I'm very grateful to the Bradstocks because not many take that leap of faith, putting a conditional rider on their best horse. It was a dreamlike, incredible day, but a lot of work had gone into getting to that point.
"I was still mucking out at the time though. When I went into Seven Barrows the next morning and went to fetch a wheelbarrow, Corky Browne, the head lad, said, 'No need for that any more'."
No longer having to muck out is a seminal moment in a career, the point when a lad crosses the line to jockey. However, when he left Bradfield, a private school, the odds were against De Boinville ending up as a jockey. In his gap year, he worked for Richard Gibson in France where a few rides in amateur races gave him a taste for it and six weeks into reading history and politics at Newcastle University, he called time on academia.
"I went to work for my uncle, Patrick Chamings, and my parents bought a pointer which I rode out in my lunch break," he said. "I had a couple of wins and that summer, a job came up at Nicky Henderson's as a lad with the offer of schooling but the promise of nothing. It was a step into the unknown. My first ride was during that season's Cheltenham Festival - in a bumper at Huntingdon."
His arrival at Seven Barrows had, however, coincided with the arrival of a four-year-old who had been among a job lot of horses bought out of a field in France and De Boinville was paired up with it from day one.
It was Sprinter Sacre, and while the early years were spent preparing him for Barry Geraghty to ride, when the Meath man became JP McManus's jockey, De Boinville was rewarded with the ride, although there had been a few false dawns on the horse's road to redemption after his heart problem.
"The day that stands out was the Shloer Chase in 2015," recalled De Boinville, who won four of his five starts on him. "The Champion Chase was a huge day, but at Cheltenham in the autumn, they came running from the grandstands to see him come in after the race. I was just very fortunate to be plonked on top, and it was amazing to just sit back and see people going wild.
"By that stage, he was a different horse from the one Barry had ridden in the glory days. It was all about keeping a lid on him then. This time you went when he wanted. The boss's instructions were always, 'Don't disappoint him'."
De Boinville's relationship with the talented but sometimes quirky Might Bite has not always been quite so straightforward.
Last season's RSA was coming to a bloodless and somewhat undramatic conclusion; Might Bite was in an unassailable lead, 12 lengths clear of Whisper going to the last with everything else broken by his relentless gallop, when he ducked right to go back to the paddock - or, as some pointed out, made for the Arkle bar. Fortunately, a loose horse swept past, and with Might Bite's competitive spirit reinvigorated, he got going again from a standstill, and overhauled Whisper on the line to win by a nose. "There was a lot of cursing from me, but I felt him take off from a standstill when the loose horse came," recalled his jockey.
"Horses don't do that at the end of three miles, not if they're tired, and it just showed how easily he'd been travelling. That's when we knew how good he might be, and he has been very straightforward ever since. He's incredibly talented, jumps for fun and has such a high cruising speed that no one else can go the gallop and maintain it.
"Bristol de Mai [higher rated by the handicapper but not by the bookmakers for the St Stephen's Day race] is the same. The race has incredible depth, so we'll see. When you get to that level, they're all good. We'll do our own thing and ride our own race."
De Boinville is, he admits, never going to be Champion Jockey. He is realistic, level-headed and happy where he is "working with great people and part of a big team" and, having missed the meeting 12 months ago because of a broken arm, whether he wins the King George or not, as far as he is concerned, it is simply good to be there this year.
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