Chris McGrath: Waley-Cohen wisest in the long run

Inside Track

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The Independent Online

One day, perhaps, he might actually make a mistake on the horse.

In the meantime, you can only hope that Sam Waley-Cohen will never trace any such aberration to things he may have heard or read since Long Run's defeat at Kempton on Boxing Day.

For however unworthy and baffling this sudden theory that Long Run is too good to be wasted on an amateur jockey, there is always a danger that doubt may become self-fulfilling. At the best of times, precisely because he is a part-timer, Waley-Cohen would have limited opportunities to prove himself on top of his game. As it is, even those have been curtailed by suspension. Conceivably, one or two of the misjudgements that triggered a series of bans may reflect some insidious anxiety in Waley-Cohen, a man whose unfettered riding has always seemed commensurate with his broader approach to life. Only he will know if that is the case. As he seeks fresh confidence at Kempton today, however, he would be perfectly entitled to permit himself something of the arrogance that would have long ago infected lesser men.

As things have turned out, Kauto Star was not in terminal decline when Long Run beat him in the King George last season. The old champion could not follow Long Run up the hill at Cheltenham in March, either, but he has since made a famous return to his pomp, avenging himself twice over – first at Haydock in November, and then back at Kempton. Sure enough, while nobody has come remotely close to explaining how a professional jockey might have altered either of those results, many people have now got it into their heads to blame the "dentist".

Some exonerate Waley-Cohen on account of the fact that he has had only 14 rides under Rules since last summer. Nobody riding so infrequently could hope to match the man on Kauto Star, who just happens to be reckoned as good a steeplechase rider as anyone has seen. Yet nobody whispered the slightest dissent before the King George last season, at which stage he had precisely the same record over the previous seven months: 14 rides, no winners.

Instead all we heard, quite rightly, was how the countless benefits Waley-Cohen had brought to the sport, with his charming and modest deportment, were amply matched by his class in the saddle. To any fair observer, in fact, his achievements from just 30 rides in Britain last season – two championship wins on one horse; and second place, on another, in the John Smith's Grand National itself – completed a case he had already made persuasively, in seasons past, in the sport's greatest crucibles. His record over the big fences at Aintree, in particular, can only be that of an outstanding horseman.

But while his CV as a rider insists that Waley-Cohen is taken seriously, he has never done so himself. He long ago learnt a suitable perspective on sport, paradoxically through both bereavement and privilege. Riding in the silks of his father, Waley-Cohen never pretends to be a match for Ruby Walsh, or Tony McCoy. He expects respect for one thing only – and that is for the role of Long Run in the life of a family that had all its immense fortune rendered hollow by the loss of his brother.

Why, in the end, does anyone buy a chaser? Not to win prize money, that's for sure. And, if that is true of a pub syndicate buying one out of a seller, then how about a man as wealthy as Robert Waley-Cohen? It is not as if he has some vague debt to the breed, as might be argued of a Flat champion with a legacy to establish at stud. And he certainly has no debt to the public. Those who bet seriously know the score exactly, and can factor their conclusions into the odds. Those who do not have shared one of the great romances of modern Turf history – and been able to do so, moreover, largely on account of the patience with which Sam receives the same old questions, and the passion with which he devises fresh answers.

Even if he rode like a 19th-century guardsman, and was more hindrance than help to Long Run, the only people guilty of taking themselves too seriously would be those who quibble over his eligibility. Waley-Cohen is one of the few men you might ever meet who truly understands how precious are life's opportunities. That's nothing to do with wealth, but a hard-won wisdom we might all learn. And the notion that Long Run might be simply too precious an opportunity is not just an insult. It could only be volunteered by one too shallow to acquire that wisdom himself.

Turf Account

Chris McGrath's nap

Lightning Strike (2.50 Kempton)

Kept some smart company in his younger days, and looked back to his best when hacking up at Hereford on Sunday.

Next best

Sona Sasta (3.40 Warwick)

Promising return against subsequent Welsh National winner suggested he was still on the upgrade, and is easily forgiven a tough gig at Leopardstown last time.

One to watch

Terra Bleu (Brendan Powell) continues to thrive for his new yard, unlucky to bump into a handicap blot at Fontwell on Thursday but travelling strongly before pulling clear of the rest.

Where the money's going

Act Of Kalanisi has been backed all week with the sponsors for the William Hill Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton today, now 6-1 from 8-1.

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