Osborne the Large Action man

Jamie Reid talks to the talented jockey with his sights fixed on Cheltenham
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The Independent Online
THERE were some gripping scenes at Warwick last Thursday and it felt as if half of the West Midlands had turned out to watch them.

Many of the bumper holiday crowd were lucky to get into the racecourse at all thanks to the administrative genius who had decided that there should be one queue to buy a Members' badge and another one to have it punched by an elderly Jobsworth in a pork-pie hat. The racecourse caterers seemed to be equally unprepared for the size of the attendance and there were Cunard-style shortages and 10-deep queues at the bars throughout the afternoon.

But there were plenty of compensations on the track. Richard Dunwoody rode a four-timer breaking the 100-winner mark for the season; his great rival Adrian Maguire had two seconds and picked up a three-day suspension for misuse of the whip; Martin Pipe scored a double; and the champion trainer, David Nicholson, came face-to-face with a photographer. And kept his hands in his pockets.

The pundits may only have eyes for the front-runners in the jockeys' championship race. But there are more than two leading players in the present crop of National Hunt riders. To the names of Dunwoody and Maguire must be added those of the convalescing Declan Murphy, his fellow Irishman Norman Williamson and, last but not least, the Lambourn-based Jamie Osborne - fifth in the table with 56 winners, including a double at Newbury yesterday.

Indeed if you talk to many of Osborne's fellow professionals, or to a former weighing-room star like John Francome, you realise that the slight 27-year-old is rated the equal of anyone now riding. "His natural talent and rhythm and feel for a horse are as good as anyone you could mention," Francome says. "In most other eras he'd already have been champion two or three times. He still could be if he could just get the rides."

And for Osborne there lies the sting. He may be widely regarded as the consummate partner of big-race contenders like the Champion Hurdle favourite Large Action, who is due to appear next in tomorrow's New Year's Day Hurdle at Windsor. But stables like that of Large Action's trainer Oliver Sherwood, who is Osborne's principal employer, are built more around the steady development of high-class chasers than quick returns in egg-and-spoon contests.

Osborne finds himself confronted with an almost insuperable numerical disadvantage. He has so far had 249 mounts this season to Dunwoody's 426. So does this state of affairs get the man down? "It doesn't frustrate me at all," he says. "The people that I am riding for, especially Oliver, are all geared towards decent horses. I'm very ambitious and I'd like to be champion jockey. But I'm not depressed about it. I really like the hand I've been dealt."

Osborne signalled how well he could handle pressure with a bravura first-day treble at the 1992 Cheltenham Festival. And his scintillating victory on Remittance Man in the following day's Champion Chase, one of a quintet of winners at the meeting, sealedhis reputation. What helps to make Osborne so good is that, as befits somebody with eight O Levels and three A Levels, he is intelligent, too: a real thinking man's jockey who is never complacent. "I'm very self critical," he confirms. "I don't mind coming home with five seconds if I think I've ridden well. But if I think I've made mistakes then even if I've ridden two winners I'm in a bad mood.

"We jockeys enjoy the job and it's a wonderful sport. But a few weeks ago at Wincanton I had six booked mounts and I took a bad fall in the first. I'd smashed a back tooth and sprung a rib as well. But I could still walk and I believed I could still ride. But as I came back into the weighing room I heard myself being criticised by this character who is 15 stone and who has never got up on a horse in his life. If only those sort of people knew what it felt like at that moment." Armchair jockeys take note.

As steeplechasing's rudder begins to swing tantalisingly towards the second half of the season, Osborne knows that there are great expectations of more big-race successes for him in 10 weeks' time. Large Action is at the forefront of many calculations, but, Osborne says, "if you think how much the Champion Hurdle picture has changed in the past three months then you know that it could change again between now and March.

"But so far Large Action has come through his trials very well. He was nearly quick enough last year and I feel that he's improved since then. He stays so well and a strong gallop brings his stamina into play. But he's not a See You Then. And his position as Champion Hurdle favourite is vulnerable."

The horse may be vulnerable to some late-challenging animal with a turn of foot but his jockey's self-belief will surely be invulnerable to even Maguire or Charlie Swan. As another Jobsworth arrived to evict troublesome "outsiders" from the weighing-roomand order all jockeys to weigh out for the sixth, Osborne went on his way with an insouciant calm.

His final mount of the day was pulled up in another bread-and-butter race won predictably by Dunwoody, with Maguire in second place. But as the crowd fought their way out through the clogged Warwick car park you felt that Osborne would probably take thisresult in his stride. He is, after all, safe in the knowledge that there are still much better cards to play. And much bigger days to come.