Wunderkind making the grade
There are certain pitfalls associated with interviewing 16-year-olds, sporting wunderkind or not. Naturally, because of a lack of life experience apart from anything else, they do not always have much to say for themselves and often see things through a rosy prism of innocence.
But after an hour-and-a-half in the company of James Bowen, who became the youngest jockey to win the Welsh National eight days ago, I came away with two thoughts. One was that even in a sport as capricious as jump racing, he has the mentality and brains it takes to be champion jockey one day, and the other was that wherever he went to school, I must really try and send my own children there.
He is bright and intelligent, full of self-belief but not arrogance, focused but not blinkered, he is switched on, grounded, he knows where he is going and how he is going to get there and, if there is a 16-year-old in Wales making more money, I would hazard a guess he is probably doing so illegally. Being Bowen it is taken for granted he is a grafter.
The son of Pembrokeshire trainer Peter and his wife, Karen, and youngest of three brothers (Mickey, 22, a point-to-point trainer and Sean, 19, de facto second jockey to Paul Nicholls), Bowen did not start riding ponies until he was eight. "It was quite late really," he recalled. "I wasn't interested until then. Sean was the same. We weren't forced into it and mum would have been quite happy for us not to be jockeys, though I don't think she minds now. We had a few rough ponies which we would race round the gallops. We had one called Striker. We would put blinkers on him to make him go faster. He was legend - whatever we did, he only ever went the pace he wanted to go, but we learned how to ride a finish on him. He lived until he was 36, so it didn't do him any harm."
This soon developed into unofficial pony races with their cousins Josh (now an apprentice with Andrew Balding) and Peter Bryan. "We'd stage our own," he explained. "Four ponies, four races over different distances and you'd ride a different one each time and get points. Sean always used to win."
Aged nine, he started official pony racing on two slow ponies. "They weren't very good but they were racing ponies, they pulled up the gallops and we learned a lot. Dad then got two which were virtually unbeatable."
Aged 14, Bowen left Fishguard High School to follow his brother Sean into the "classroom" at Yet-Y-Rhug to be home-schooled. "I didn't really get into school much on Tuesday and Fridays before I left anyway because they were work [gallops] mornings.
"When Sean was home-schooled, someone would occasionally come and check up on him but, by the time I was doing it, I think they'd virtually written us off. Sean had a few lessons but they weren't much use and very expensive. In two years, I never had a single lesson! I think they knew we were doing something and not just sitting at home on an Xbox. Dad always said you don't need A-levels to ride horses."
He may not be able to paper the loo wall of the first house he buys with exam certificates but dad recalled that, having just missed a fortnight of school, James got 95 per cent in one maths exam. "He just found everything very easy at school," Peter said. "When he was at primary school, the teacher, who was in her 60s, said he was the brightest kid she'd ever taught. 'Whatever you do,' she said, 'makes sure he always goes to school!'"
In all, he rode about 90 pony-race winners from fewer than 150 rides and, on his 16th birthday, March 12, he switched to point-to-pointing, with five rides for brother Mickey (who would supply him with "30 steering jobs" between then and June). Two won, one was third, one fell (due, he said, to his own inexperience) and another pulled up.
He was leading novice rider, breaking the previous record. He turned professional in May, the official school-leaving age, and his first winner as a professional was Curious Carlos at Cartmel at the end of the month.
He has since joined Nicky Henderson as conditional jockey, leads that championship and has ridden another 36 winners including Raz De Maree in the Welsh National.
He spent a month of the last three summer holidays riding out for Gordon Elliott, who also courted him to join his yard as conditional jockey.
"I stayed in the house with Gordon," he explained. "I had a few rides for him at Perth and at Galway and I strongly considered it but I felt, long term, my career would be here in Britain. Ireland would have been a different ball game."
There is a touch of the McCoys about Bowen. He is interested in sports psychology and he believes pain is all in the mind which, his father pointed out, was proved when he rode 10 point-to-point winners with a half-inch gap in his collarbone.
Of course, aged 16, Bowen cannot drive, but he has a car which, when he is stuck for a lift, he can get someone else to drive. "Everyone tells me to make the most of not being able to drive," he said.
Like a lot of jockeys, he comes complete with facial scar but it (26 stitches) was not the result of a flying hoof to chin but rather running through a plate-glass door while racing Sean on a Spanish holiday as a child. However, in Sean, stockier and lighter, he has a good lead horse. "If I was Sean's weight and size, I'd be riding on the Flat," said the businessman in Bowen. "I think, in an ideal world, he would like to be a big-race jockey. We all get a kick out of winning big races but, more than that, I want to be champion jockey."
That may be the wish of a precocious 16-year-old but, I suspect, it is also a statement of intent.
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