"You can't get too cocky in this job," declares Carl Llew-ellyn ruefully as he broaches the sense of fraternity, the bond, which exists between men who could scarcely be more competitive, yet who begin each day in the knowledge that they may be going home not to their own bed but to one in an infirmary. "Not when you can get the shit kicked out of you by a horse the next day."
The Welsh-born rider, who speaks with the authority of a man approaching a quarter-century in the saddle, utters a truth that could not be more pertinent than in the prelude to this Saturday's Grand National, when the man who triumphed on Party Politics in 1992 and again on Earth Summit six years later seeks a hat-trick of victories.
Llewellyn has been here many times before for an event he describes as "the people's race". Yet this Aintree experience will be one of conflicting emotions as he waits quietly, reflectively, on this year's mount, Ollie Magern from the Nigel Twiston-Davies yard, by whom he is retained, as the starter climbs his rostrum.
Win, lose, or merely survive the rigours of the National, the following day at Worcester he will make the transition from C Llewellyn, stylish National Hunt jockey, to C Llewellyn, trainer, and master of Weathercock House in Upper Lambourn. He will still ride occasionally, both his own yard's horses and those of Twiston-Davies.
Llewellyn has just had his application approved to take over the stewardship of these stables from Mark Pitman - whose mother, the mighty Mrs P, trained National winners Corbiere and Royal Athlete there. Pitman, to whom Llewellyn has been assistant, is relinquishing his training licence after nine years because of family commitments in Spain. "Mark just decided that he doesn't want to go on any more," says Llewellyn, who confesses that this job swap is "a massive wrench".
He adds: "People say, 'You're mad to become a trainer', and it's true that this is probably the hardest decision I've had to make since I started riding. I'm first jockey at Nigel's, he's got 90 horses, and that's a lucky position to be in. Though I'm 41 in four months I'm still fit, still good enough, and love it. But I look at it this way: ever since I left school, all I've ever done is muck out horses, brush them, ride them out, school them, and ride them in races.
"If you look at it like that, I'm pretty unprepared for any other job in life. To try and do something else, like, I don't know, a car salesman, is chancy, isn't it? This is a big step, but it's not completely alien to what I'm used to."
He laughs when it is suggested that the stereotypical future life of a jockey is tipping, TV punditry or running a pub. But Llewellyn, who will be employed by the yard's owner, Malcolm Denmark, maintains: "Training is a fascinating job. Over the years I've thought that I would do it, if the right job came along. But it can be financial suicide for a lot of people who pump all their money into it. The only way I was ever going to go into it was by being a salaried trainer."
The articulate, gregarious Llewellyn starts with one definite advantage. He is a social animal, who will have no problem providing the time that owners demand to discuss their horses. "I won't set targets, but I am ambitious. In a quiet way, I want to win every bloody big jump race. But my first job is to keep the horses that are already here. We've got 45 at the moment. So, hopefully, it'll stay at that and then more will come, because there's 79 boxes."
We jokingly discuss the change of image he will have to undergo. "No, I won't be buying a big tweed coat and a flat cap to match, although the lads in the weighing room have already been taking the mick about that, because I'm obviously going to put on weight," says Llewellyn, who does 10 stone without a problem. "They're asking me if I've been buying trousers four times bigger, for when the time comes."
Which brings us - though not directly, it must be stressed - to the subject of Twiston-Davies, who has provided a fruitful education for his protégé and is apparently bullish about the chances of Ollie Magern, the eight-year-old who won the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in October but whose form has been indifferent since, including in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
"You've got to remember this is a one-off event, and mine is one of those that's got the class to win it," Llewellyn insists. "Ollie Magern's jumping is good, he's relaxed, he's very professional, in fact he's a lovely horse in every way. He's enthusiastic, and enjoys it, and he's very clever on his feet, which is important. Nigel feels he's got a right chance."
As for his principal rivals, the jockey opines: "Hedgehunter's obviously the best horse. He's got a lot of weight, although I still think he's got a hell of a chance despite that. The obvious one is Clan Royal. He's got great form round there. I'd love AP [Tony McCoy] to win it on him if I don't on mine."
You ask him about that generosity of spirit within men who are otherwise hardened professionals. "We're lucky," he says. "You look at people like AP, Fitzy [Mick Fitzgerald], Tony Dobbin, Richard Johnson; they're all bloody good people. I go on holiday with Fitzy and AP every year. We have a great time, and never talk about horses. There's no arrogance, nobody thinks they're anything special, and they're pleased when other people win; they're all good sportsmen."
Sportsmen who would rejoice in a horsewoman on the winner? Nina Carberry rides Richard Ford's Forest Gunner. "She's a good rider," Llewellyn concurs, with genuine enthusiasm. "I think it'd be good for racing if she won it, wouldn't it? She's got a chance, as well. The horse has been very good over those fences. I wouldn't have any worries about her just because she's a girl."
Llewellyn, whose current girlfriend is Emma Jackson, who works for owner Trevor Hemmings at his preparation yard in Cheshire, smiles as he recalls: "I was going out with Gee [Armytage] when she rode in the National. She pulled up halfway round after she hurt her back on Gee-A. So I can't have anything against lady jockeys, can I?"
You ask whether this will be his last ride in the National. "Probably, but not definitely," he says. "If I'm riding a few nice horses, I could ride one for my own yard, or Nigel may have two in the race. I'd love to keep going."
Maybe the completion of a Grand National hat-trick would be an appropriate valedictory appearance, you suggest. "Yes," he agrees. "I'd settle for that." And who is to say he won't be in six days' time?
LLEWELLYN'S ROLL OF HONOUR
BORN: 29 July 1965, Pembrokeshire.
POSITION: assistant trainer to Mark Pitman; first jockey to Nigel Twiston-Davies.
FIRST WINNER: Starjestic, 14 March 1986, Wolverhampton.
GRAND NATIONAL PEDIGREE: won on Party Politics (1992) and Earth Summit (1998). On both occasions stood in for injured jockeys: Andy Adams and Tom Jenks, respectively. Rode 100-1 Camelot Knight into third (1997).
OTHER MAJOR SUCCESSES: Won Welsh National on Bindaree and Whitbread Gold Cup on Beau. Six Cheltenham Festival wins.
OTHER INTERESTS: Dedicated Swindon Town fan.Reuse content