Norman's conquests in calm after the storm

COUNTDOWN TO CHELTENHAM: A mellowing young man may be celebrating in style, come the climax of this year's Festival Richard Edmondson talks to the partner of the Gold Cup favourite
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Norman Williamson went to last year's Cheltenham Festival even though he was banned from riding and bumped into one of the Doncaster stewards who had removed him from activities at Prestbury Park.

"He told me he was sorry about how things had turned out," the jockey said. "I told him that, as long as I was riding, I would never forgive him."

Almost a year on, Williamson remains an angry young man about missing Cheltenham 1994 and two winning rides, on Flakey Dove in the Champion Hurdle and Monsieur Le Cure in the Sun Alliance Novices' Chase. But, in three weeks' time, final purgation may arrive.

Last season, when he rode 106 winners, and this campaign, during which he has suggested that the jockeys' title need not necessarily be a contest confined to Richard Dunwoody and Adrian Maguire, have made the man from Mallow a fearsome figure in the numbers game. Next month he will enjoy perhaps the most attractive book of rides of all at the Festival and will have the best seat in the best race, the favourite's ride on Master Oats in the Gold Cup.

At 26, Williamson has put some distance between the jockey he is now and the homesick young amateur who wanted to return home from John Edwards's stable in 1988. "I was on the way back but then I rode a winner at Windsor," he said. "So I decided to stay."

He is now firmly established in Lambourn's valley of the horse at East Garston and there is little reminder of the callow youth who first arrived on these shores. Williamson speaks well and confidently, with trademark Irish phraseology (the word thing does not appear to have an "h" in his pronunciation and the number after two sounds like the board a butler carries the drinks and soda siphon on).

His home is now stereotypically that of a British racing family. Our interview (during which Williamson disposed of several of his favourite Silk Cut) was conducted in a country kitchen decorated substantially with action photographs of some of the jockey's winning mounts.

Most of these best wins have occurred since Williamson teamed up with the Lambourn trainer Kim Bailey, who has had the most fundamental effect on the Irishman's career. "I'm riding for a great stable," Williamson said. "Mr Bailey is the most ambitious trainer I've ever met and it's racing morning, noon and night with him. That has made me realise I've got to be the same way if I'm going to get on in the game. Otherwise I would be wasting my time.

"Once I'm awake it's got to be racing now. He's made me sharper and I'm much more competitive."

This relationship, though, had an unusual beginning. Bailey signed Williamson as his stable rider and immediately insisted he went for riding tuition. "When I first moved to Lambourn Mr Bailey sent me to Yogi Breisner [who, in racing terminology, is the jumping guru] for lessons," he said. "I couldn't believe it. You don't send your first jockey for riding lessons. But it's been the best thing I've ever done."

When he first arrived in Britain, Williamson, like several of his countrymen, liked to let it show he was trying. Today, however, his technique is as smooth as any, with as much sloppy movement as a soldier employs when sweeping a minefield. "When I first came here I was definitely more of a force man than a stylist," he said. "But Yogi helped me a lot in presenting a horse at a fence. And if you present them better, they jump better and the whole thing looks better.

"In the past 12 months the style has improved. I'm riding more winners and I've got time to do it more than anything else."

This improvement has not been seen much at the Festival, at which Williamson has yet to ride a winner. He has been suspended on two occasions for National Hunt's climax, most notably last year when he was dealt with in most Draconian manner for an incident at Doncaster.

"I don't think I'll ever forget it," he said. "I've watched it a thousand times and I still think I shouldn't have been done. I thought I was innocent so I still went to Cheltenham. I was there for the three days."

This was a surreal passage in Williamson's life. He was at his workplace at the most important time of the year but was redundant. He felt most helpless when Flakey Dove, his intended ride, won the Champion Hurdle. "I was in one of the bars upstairs on my own watching the Champion," he said. "I saw her go clear and I just stood there watching the screen for ages. I felt like dying. That was hard.

"My bank manager wouldn't agree, but I'm probably better for it. That probably cost me £17,000 but it wasn't the money that hurt. Cheltenham wins aren't easy to come by."

Gold Cups are the most precious commodity of them all, and Williamson now has a marvellous chance to win a race which he has held sacred since he was a teenager. "The Gold Cup has always been the race for me," he said. "I was hardly riding when Dawn Run won [in 1986] but that race turned the whole of Ireland upside down. From then on it really sank in that the Gold Cup was the major race. That was something else, the best race I've ever seen."

His partner three weeks on Thursday will be Master Oats, who first won a handicap chase at Uttoxeter in November 1993 and, according to the official ratings, is reckoned to have improved 58lb since then. The gelding has churned through the mud with all the efficiency of a Chieftain tank this season, but there are worries in his camp that he may prove a vehicle just as one-paced if the ground should turn firm for Cheltenham.

"On heavy ground, he's very, very good and on that going he'd take all the beating in the Gold Cup," Williamson said. "I think he's 2-1 favourite which is absolutely crazy. If the ground ends up being good, for me he's a 10-1 shot and you just pray he goes on the ground. The question is whether he would have the speed on good ground. We don't know. No-one knows."

Everyone knows though that Norman Williamson deserves a break at the Festival. Ever since the Gulf War the Irishman has been known as Stormin' Norman in the country's weighing rooms. Twelve months ago at Prestbury Park he was Ragin' Norman, but this time around he hopes he will be celebratin'.