Family matters for the Waley-Cohen dynasty

Sam aims for repeat Gold Cup glory with Long Run

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No ordinary breed, this. Asked to account for the bravura of his son Sam, Robert Waley-Cohen relates how his own father once found himself in Chamonix, listening to a table of climbers plan an ascent of Mont Blanc.

"They were going on about all the training they had to do, and he told them not to be so ridiculous," Waley-Cohen says. "It was just like going for a walk. And so they had a bet. He did hire two guides. If he only had one, who then got hurt, he wouldn't have had a clue what to do. But he won the bet all right."

It is in the blood, then – and likewise a love of horses, by dint of which the chairman of Cheltenham racecourse also happens to be father of the dashing amateur rider who is about to defend its greatest prize. On Friday, Samwill again wear Waley-Cohen's chocolate-and-orange silks when Long Run has his latest showdown with the ageless Kauto Star in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Long Run is by no means the first of the privileges embraced by the young aristocrat, but Waley-Cohen stresses that wealth on its own can be a key that fits no door. "It gives you access, it gives you opportunity," he says. "But if you don't take advantage, there's no point."

That perspective was horribly sharpened when Thomas, young-est of the four children, died of cancer in 2004. He was 20. All the money in the world could be no consolation. Since then the family has raised fortunes for charity and Sam, who stitched Tom's initials into his saddle, strives to live the life denied his brother.

"Obviously Thomas's death had a huge impact on us all, and you remember it every day of your life," Waley-Cohen says. "Sam was nearest in age, and they were very close. Tom was 10 when he first fell ill, Sam 12. So in a seminal period in his life, Sam saw his brother having chemotherapy, a lower-leg amputation, in hospital for many months, behind all these doors and anti-germ controls.

"But he also saw a character with a huge love of life, with enormous enthusiasm, absolutely not putting off to tomorrow what could be done today. Tom always wanted to make things happen, and would be very impatient with people who said, 'I wish I was thinner, or fitter'. He'd say, 'Well, I suggest you eat less, or go to the gym.' It was all about making the most of every minute. So while we all know what Rudyard Kipling recommended, Sam is one of those rare people who has actually set out to do it."

Not that the grandson of the baronet whose first climb was Mont Blanc would otherwise have lacked endeavour. Sam has made the same ascent himself, only in his case he skied back down. "He has raised enormous sums for charity doing daring and dramatic things," Waley-Cohen says. "But I'm not sure Tom's death was the sole impetus. He has always been very clear-sighted about what he wants to achieve. And putting things off, or not being on the ball all the time, is not tolerated."

On skis or in the saddle, it has always been hard to keep up with Sam. Waley-Cohen remembers warning the master of their local hunt in Warwickshire not to imagine he might teach the boy any humbling lessons. "I told him that to try and astonish Sam was not a way to live long," he smiles.

The master was plainly dubious, and led Sam into a right-angled turn after an iron gate. Much to his disgust, he turned round and found the precocious 16-year-old right beside him. More recently Sam was following Enda Bolger, one of the great Irish horsemen, over his own country. Only one of them came off, and it was not Sam.

Waley-Cohen himself completed two of his three rides over the Grand National fences. "The child always gets inflicted with thwarted ambition of the parents," he smiles. "But Sam was always particularly natural on a horse."

So it is that a young entrepreneur who runs a chain of dental practices has become, in his spare time, one of the most accomplished amateurs in Turf history. His record round Aintree, in particular, is remarkable: he has won three races over the big fences, including two in two days at a stage when he was still ineligible to ride in the National itself.

Last year, after winning the Gold Cup on Long Run, he finished second in the National on Oscar Time. He needs the right horse, of course, no less than Ruby Walsh. But such a CV, from few but different mounts, is plainly the work of a consummate horseman.

Even so, as rider of a defending champion he has endured criticism that must be counted witless in its indifference to what Sam has already achieved – not to mention what the whole adventure means to his family. "To be fair, I'm a very competitive fellow," Waley-Cohen says. "If I thought he was just an OK point-to-point rider, I wouldn't let him ride a horse like Long Run. They say Kauto Star is the greatest horse, certainly since Arkle, possibly ever. And that Ruby is an outstanding pro, at the top of his trade. But then in the same breath they complain if a young horse ridden by an amateur can't reach him. I'm not sure the first half quite goes with the second. All I know is that Sam has always been pretty fearless."