Young and old combine for Welsh National win
The youngest jockey and the oldest horse combined to win yesterday's refixed 2017 Coral Welsh National when the 16-year-old Welshman James Bowen and the Irish-trained Raz De Maree, the first 13-year-old to triumph in the race since World War II, galloped to a six-length victory through the mud at Chepstow.
Bowen, the son of the Pembroke trainer Peter Bowen, was home-schooled, is not yet old enough to drive a car and is only three years older than the horse he partnered, but he is a fine advert for the British pony-racing circuit, where he rode 80 winners. He rode in his first point-to-point on March 12 last year and went on to ride 30 winners before following his older brother Sean into the professional ranks. In the autumn he joined Nicky Henderson as a conditional jockey and he is already 10 winners clear in their championship.
"I thought I had a chance until we jumped the first," joked Bowen, who will rarely have to push as hard in a race. "It certainly wasn't the plan to be that far back. He didn't travel anywhere with me and turning out of the back straight for the last time I still thought it would be something just to get around or placed.
"But then he started passing horses, locked on and in the end I probably got there too soon. To win the Welsh National, a race you grow up watching, in my first season riding, is amazing."
For most of the first circuit Raz De Maree, runner-up in the race last year and spent this Christmas in Chepstow's stables in anticipation of the race's aborted December 27 slot, had just one horse behind him and seemed to be struggling, with Bowen pushing just to keep him engaged.
However, though it was not instantaneously obvious, the race was playing into his hands. Up at the front the pace seemed to be strong in the conditions. Turning in, with three of the three and a half miles completed, it began to take its toll.
On top of that, the fall of the Welsh National trial winner Wild West Wind, who nearly brought down another of the favourites, Beware The Bear, at the 12th, effectively took out two leading chances in one hit. A group of six began to draw away on the home turn but it soon began to fall apart, with only Alfie Spinner, the other 13-year-old in this year's race, at its head going anything like a winner.
But the 16-1 shot Raz De Maree was creeping ever closer and joined the leader jumping the second-last before galloping home strongly to lead home a one-two for the equine OAPs. Final Nudge ran well for third while Vintage Cloud, the 7-1 favourite, plugged on gamely for fourth.
The victory was also the biggest in the career of Meath trainer Gavin Cromwell, though he is no stranger to even bigger winners: a blacksmith by trade, he is farrier to Gordon Elliott. With his hands were shod the Grand National winner Silver Birch and Gold Cup winner Don Cossack and countless other Grade One winners.
Half an hour earlier Cromwell, 43, who has only been training seriously for four years, had put the saddle on Raz De Maree unsure whether his other runner, Famous Milly, would get up again after falling at the last in the Coral Future Champions Finale Juvenile Hurdle. Luckily, it turned out she was merely winded.
"He has such heart," said Cromwell of Raz de Maree. "He doesn't know how to give up and James gave him a peach of a ride. I'm delighted he accepted the ride - a few top jockeys rang up for it but the horse is so small that taking 5lb off his back was important. He is owned by a neighbour, Jimmy Swan Sr, who isn't that well at the moment so was watching at home. I actually thought it was a huge ask to come back a year older with a pound more weight. But he stays so well and he won't stop. Once he was running there wasn't any doubt."