'I don't think I've ever been as nervous'
In racing circles, at least, Michael Owen is best known as the enthusiastic owner-breeder of Irish St Leger winner Brown Panther. His passion for the sport has seen him go further than the majority of other owners by investing in his own Cheshire yard, Manor House Stables.
His hands-on involvement at Manor House, where Tom Dascombe is the trainer, is more to do with looking after the other owners than physically helping with the horses.
But on November 24 the former England footballer - whose journeys took him from Liverpool to Real Madrid, Newcastle and Manchester United - will take his participation to another level when he makes his racecourse debut as a jockey in a charity race at Ascot in aid of the Prince's Countryside Fund.
"When I retired from football I thought I'd do the odd thing for charity," he said. "I raised £75,000 doing the London Marathon. The team said it was about time I did another fundraiser. Everyone assumes I ride because I own a yard but the only time I'd ever sat on a pony was aged eight on a holiday to Ibiza."
Everyone can kick a ball, in much the same way that everyone can sit on a horse, but not everyone can dribble it around several Argentine defenders and the goalkeeper in a World Cup quarter-final, as Owen famously did as an 18-year-old in 1998. And, as he soon found out, sitting on a horse is one thing, actually riding it another.
"I thought it should be pretty straightforward. I'd have the facility to myself, I could practise as much or as little as I wanted and the Prince's Countryside Fund is a great cause. I've always admired jockeys and thought the thrill of riding a fast one must be amazing, and here we are now with not long to go and I'm feeling pretty nervous."
For a beginner, Owen is remarkably confident and fearless, although that was shaken slightly by his assessment day at the British Racing School last month when he fell off twice, although he even managed to find a positive in that. "I could have fallen off 10 times but I clung on eight times," he laughed. "The horses were whipping round having a laugh at us. Riders more experienced than me had a job staying on."
But having been around the business for 20 years, he knew it would not be plain sailing. "We get a lot of people rocking up to my stables thinking it's the local riding stable and saying, 'Can I have a sit on one?' And I think, 'If you sat on one I'd give you 10 seconds before you're in hospital in a serious condition'. Horses are not easy, racehorses are nigh-on impossible - they're bred to do a job, fed to be full of life, and if you're inexperienced on the back of one you are in grave danger of getting hurt."
The best thing Dascombe did, it would appear, is chuck Owen in the deep end on his first morning. He put him on his quiet hunter in the trotting ring and had the head lad lead him round at the walk. After two laps the head lad started jogging and the horse started trotting.
"I bounced left, right feeling like I was going to fall off over his shoulder or out the back door at any moment," recalled Owen. "I'd been going 10 minutes trying to get into the rhythm of a rising trot, then all of a sudden the whole string were in the ring with me. I was feeling reasonably safe walking when Tom told us all to trot on. So now I was on my own, the horse following the leader. Then Tom shouted, 'Michael, lead them down to the gallop' and I'm trying to steer this hunter down to the seven-furlong marker.
"I don't think I've ever been as nervous or as scared in my life. I'd ridden for 15 minutes, I'm about to get whatever the horse wants to do and I don't know what to do. I got on to the gallop. He got on to his back legs and I thought he was rearing but he was just thrusting to get some momentum. Then we're cantering with me holding on for dear life with 20 thoroughbreds behind me and I'm thinking, 'If I come off here I'm in serious bother'.
"By time I'd done four furlongs I'd got some balance and thought, 'I'm not going to fall off here' and I started enjoying the last three furlongs. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Though I'd pretty much been lying across its back, I made it. I'd have hated to have seen what I looked like. Tiredness wasn't an issue but I ripped about five holes in my hands gripping the reins."
The biggest barrier to his improvement has been time. Owen has four children, runs five businesses and does 90 broadcast days a year. Add in the occasional holiday and that is not much time for riding out.
"My biggest worry will be cantering to the start and then controlling the horse for a flag start, when I know it will be revved," he said. "I had a choice of two horses: Chosen Character, who'd give me a nice day out, or Calder Prince, who isn't so easy but he'll be more competitive. Tom says I shouldn't just want to take part, his assistant says I should play safe, but I'm competitive."
Dascombe is hoping to give him a "racecourse gallop" on Calder Prince at Wolverhampton before the big day. He has taken advice from stable jockey Richard Kingscote, and Ryan Moore gave him a lesson on a mechanical horse, although the irony of that was not lost on Owen.
"Where do you start trying to coach someone who hasn't sat on a horse in 37-and-a-half years? I should have been down the local riding school, not asking Ryan for lessons," he reflected.
Should he not have sought his advice nearer to home, then? His eldest daughter, Gemma, is on the British dressage team on her pony. "She's only 14," said Owen, "but even she said, 'Dad, you know you can't polish a turd don't you?'"