Sam Waley-Cohen interview
The following feature is available free for reproduction in full or in part.
Sam Waley-Cohen could not be accused of underachievement. By the age of 30, he'd become a millionaire businessman (thanks to a chain of dental practices) and become the first amateur in 30 years to win one of racing's most glittering prizes, The Cheltenham Gold Cup. Not only that - he also has impeccable royal connections - Will and Kate are close friends. As if all of that isn't enough, he's also a sickeningly nice, decent, modest fellow. It's enough to make you hate him, frankly.
Here, he talks about his finest moments in sport, the difficulty in balancing work and racing, and where he gets his inspiration.
You're a successful businessman, you run a thriving company. Why do you put yourself through the slog of riding?
That's a good question! Riding is for fun, I suppose. Some people kick a football, or play tennis, or go to the pub. I like racing horses. It's as simple as that, I suppose.
You've grown up around horses. Did you always imagine you'd end up in National Hunt racing?
I suppose I did. I always wanted to race horses over fences. But I suppose I always thought I'd be point-to-pointing and doing it very much bas a hobby. I never imagined in my wildest dreams I'd be riding in Gold Cups and Grand Nationals and things like that.
When did that change? When did you begin to realise you might be able to take it that bit further?
I think probably the first time was when Liberthine won the Mildmay of Flete at Cheltenham Festival [in 2005]. I'd never really expected to ride at Cheltenham Festival against professionals, and then I got the ride, and more by luck than anything else she won the race. And that was the beginning of my thinking it might be possible to do it again.
You've had an enormous amount of success - particularly for an amateur rider - most notably winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup [on Long Run in 2011]. Was that the high point of your career to date?
Yeah, there's no question winning the Gold Cup is a dream. Riding in the Gold Cup, against the best horses, against Kauto Star and Denman, as a rider, that's really fantasy. So to compete against them, and against the top jockeys, and be lucky enough to win, there's no question that that's an unforgettable high. But I've had some great days at Aintree as well, and sometimes in terms of just pure fun, riding the Grand National fences is totally unbeatable.
You mentioned that you raced against Kauto Star and Denman, two of the all-time greats. Going into the Gold Cup, did you really believe you had a chance?
Yeah, without question. Actually, we ended up going off favourite in the race. We'd won the King George earlier in the year, so we knew we were competing at the very highest level. But you need so much luck in that environment, and we didn't know that he'd stay the 3 mile 2 furlongs, and he hadn't run brilliantly at Cheltenham before then. So we went there full of optimism, but also full of realism that it might not come off.
You've had a second place in the National. Would winning that top even the Gold Cup?
It's so hard to rank these races. But for me, the Grand National is the ultimate challenge for horse and jockey. It's the ultimate gladiatorial competition, the race that captures the public imagination, the race that all the lads in the weighing room want to win. So there's no question, if somebody said "You could win a Grand National," you'd give up a lot to do that.
You regularly go up against AP McCoy and Ruby Walsh, two of the greatest jump jockeys of all time. What kind of training do you have to do to try and keep up with these guys (who are, after all, full-time)?
The biggest thing of all in competing against them is to be on the right horse. If you're lucky enough to be on the right horse, that makes a big difference. But in terms of competing at that level, you really need to be going there with confidence, and making sure that you understand the competition and what they're going to do tactically. And of course you have to work really hard on your fitness, and make sure that when push comes to shove, at the sharp end of the race, your fitness isn't going to let you down.
How do you ensure that your busy professional life doesn't impact on your training regime?
It's about finding time - so getting up early, going to bed late. It's not always completely easy - sometimes you have to sacrifice something that you should have done at work and end up working very late or very early to get those things done. It's about making the time to do it.
What are the other jockeys like in the weighing room? Is there any split between the pros and the amateurs, or are they a pretty welcoming bunch?
Obviously there's a variety, there's lots of different personalities in the weighing room. The thing that stands out most of all is that there's a massive camaraderie in the weighing room. At the end of the day, if you go out and fall and get hurt, you get hurt. If you've got to get to a light weight, it doesn't just drop off you, you've got to work at it. You start and finish the race in the same place. So in that respect, we're all the same, and everyone respects each other. Although there are people with varying degrees of success, and amateurs and professionals and all variety in between, actually there's an enormous amount of shared sense of what we're all trying to do, and some of the risks and benefits of racing.
You lost your brother, Thomas, eight years ago to cancer. How much of an inspiration is he, in terms of driving you on to do what you do?
He's a massive part of my life. In racing, you have very good days and very bad days. One of the things that happens when you lose someone you love is you realise what's important, and that life does go on even when you feel enormously disappointed. It also makes you realise how much you should enjoy yourself and make the most of the opportunities that you have. It's sometimes easy to overstate how much impact something has in your life, but it certainly helps keep my feet on the ground, and helps get me out of bed early in the mornings.
You love the sport, and have a natural affinity for it. Why not just turn pro?
The reality is that I've always loved doing it for fun. I love doing it for the enjoyment, and as soon as you turn doing something for fun into doing it as an obligation, that becomes how you make your living, a lot of the fun is taken out of that. I think even if you said to someone who loved skiing "Right, every day you will go out and do these runs all day," they'll end up thinking "Actually, this isn't much fun." So for me, it's always been a question of wanting to do this just for the love of it, because it's a fun thing to do, not to do it for money or recognition or anything else.
Alfred Dunhill created this film made about you that's going to be on Channel 4 on 24th November. What do you make of it?
Well, I think it's always a bit odd seeing a film that you're a major part of, but in a sense I don't think it's particularly about me. It's more about the story of what sometimes happens in life, and the opportunities that can come, and the ups and downs of those things. Although Long Run and I feature pretty heavily in it, actually I think it's a much bigger story than that - that sometimes amazing things happen that you could never have imagined would come to pass. I'm thrilled that Alfred Dunhill wanted to make this film because success and achievement are the ultimate inspiration and they understand that.
With those amazing things happening, it inevitably leads to you having a higher profile. How do you take things like that? Do you enjoy the adulation, or is it a bit weird?
I think one of the things it does is means that in many ways you have to behave in more of a professional manner, because when you're less-known, you get away with more things, in very crude terms. Although I'm an amateur by name, it can feel like I'm treated like a professional and judged as a professional. The media attention is thrust upon you, and can have pros and cons. You don't have much of a say whether you interact with it or not.
In that respect, do you have more of an understanding now of what your friends Will and Kate have to go through on a regular basis?
I think having your every move scrutinised would be incredibly tough. I wouldn't wish that on anybody. I suppose you just have to stay true to who you are.
Channel 4 will be the home to racing from 2013 - are you a fan of their coverage?
Yeah, I think Channel 4 do some fantastic stuff, fantastic work, and I think a lot of the things they've done for racing have been extremely positive, so it'll be interesting to see how it develop and what they bring going forward.
And your film goes out on the day of the Betfair Chase. Are you riding in that this year?
Yes, fingers crossed, absolutely.
And how do you rate your chances?
Well, we don't know yet what's running in it, but we know it's going to be a very, very competitive race, as it should be. We go there thinking we've got to get Long Run in the best form he can be. It's a course that probably doesn't suit him as well as some, and there are horses out there that really perform on a track like Haydock, and of course there's Imperial Commander there who so nearly beat Kauto Star when Kauto was at his absolute peak, you've got horses like Grands Crus who are very fancied for the King George, so it'll be a true, proper Grade One race.
A Racing Portrait: For the Love, a 30-minute film about Sam, will air on Channel 4 on Saturday 24th November at 9am.