Life in the fast lane and the long run

Sam Waley-Cohen's cavalier image as a dashing amateur conceals personal tragedy. <b>Chris McGrath</b> hears what drives the rider of the favourite in next week's RSA Chase
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Ahead of him strolled his four rivals, with their trademark swagger, flexing whips against their boots as they headed for the parade ring: Tony McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Richard Johnson, Jamie Moore. And then a child broke out of the Kempton crowd, approached the rider of the favourite and asked for his autograph.

Sam Waley-Cohen gives a delighted, self-mocking laugh. "You should have seen the others," he says. "They all turned round the same time, with the same look." He essays a suitable blend of affront and amusement.

He does not add, as he might, that he proceeded to win the race. But then winning is never the sole point for this 21st-century cavalier. For the signature he scrawled that day was, in effect, a palimpsest. The true author of his daily perspectives remains as legible in his life as in the initials stitched upon his saddle – those of his brother, Thomas, claimed by cancer in 2004, aged just 20.

Waley-Cohen, himself now 26, has much to envy. He's rich, dashing and smart. A throwback to the days of the patrician amateur, he has ridden winners over the Grand National fences on consecutive afternoons. Next Wednesday, he partners the favourite for the RSA Chase, the championship for novice steeplechasers at the Cheltenham Festival. Seventy years ago he would doubtless have leapt into the cockpit of a Spitfire with the same bravado as he will the saddle on Long Run. And that kinship is not superficial. The fighter boys knew to cherish every moment because they had learnt how precious life is, how precarious. Of all Waley-Cohen's privileges, the most important is one nobody could ever want – the insight of tragedy, of discovering what really matters.

"Thomas had cancer for 10 years, on and off," he says. "And he taught me a lot. He had a leg amputated, he was in and out of hospital, yet he played tennis, he could ski. 'OK,' he said. 'I've lost a leg, but that's not going to stop me. I'm going to do it doubly well.' So without wanting to sound too – well, you know, too 'kick the arse out of it' – you don't want to look back and think: 'I wish I'd done this, I wish I'd done that.' Life doesn't go on for ever."

Sure enough, Waley-Cohen divides his time between horses, helicopters, motorbikes and boxing, not to mention an expanding dental healthcare business. But when he first began to embrace Tom's example, it was hard to know whether he was hiding or seeking.

Certainly the scars of bereavement were still tender when Waley-Cohen, wearing the chocolate and orange silks of his father, beat 20 professionals on a mare named Liberthine in the Mildmay of Flete Handicap at the Festival. "You did run away from the hurt," he admits now. "At one point I was doing a big fund-raising event [for Tom's memorial charity] and finals and riding at Cheltenham and Aintree and writing my thesis, I was flat to the boards. And suddenly I reached the point where I thought: 'My God, I'm exhausted.' And I went off and had a bit of down time. Now I think I'm much more positive. It does teach you to live for the moment, to try not to regret things. Even when things go wrong. Racing's great like that. OK, this or that didn't go quite right. Yes, let's try and do it better, let's try and learn. But you go home and have a cup of tea and you move on, you don't dwell on it. Otherwise you'd go mad in a week."

He approaches his momentous assignment on Long Run with due equanimity. He knows perfectly well that he wouldn't get within a furlong of the ride but for the fact that the horse is owned by his father, Robert. Nicky Henderson, the most successful Cheltenham trainer in the business, reckons Long Run "a freak", a potential Gold Cup winner. And here, in his saddle, we have a chap with barely 20 winners under Rules. Waley-Cohen knows that there will be plenty of flak, should things go wrong, but will be no more intimidated by Cheltenham than by a maiden point-to-point.

"Truly I treat it the same way," he insists. "To some extent, riding a really good horse is easier than riding one that lacks a bit of scope, one tapped for toe. A good horse can go long, can go short. And I know him really well now."

His father bought Long Run after seeing him race in France and discovering him to be a brother to Liberthine. Since being transferred to Henderson, he has proved equally striking over three miles, at Kempton on Boxing Day, and two, at Warwick last month. "Warwick showed that getting into the rough and tumble holds no terrors for him," his rider says. "That was quite a physical race, and his attitude was: 'Show me more.' That's the exciting thing. He does have lots of character. He thinks he's Alpha. I'm not sure he's quite there yet, but he certainly behaves as though he is."

Waley-Cohen himself is neither arrogant nor abashed about his eligibility for the Cheltenham crucible, and is grateful for the support of the professionals. "Though probably they just want to be my friend in case I get squished [and someone else is needed for Long Run]," he smiles. "No quarter will be asked or given – by me or them, not to each other, not to me. The fact is that it doesn't matter who you are, or what your background is – if you haven't eaten for five days to make weight, you haven't eaten for five days. And if you come back black and blue, you're black and blue. Of course, when you're hurtling at a fence at 30mph the chances of something going wrong are real. When you're on a novice, they're very real. But whether we win or lose won't make me a better or worse jockey. I'll be the same jockey as I was before. If I genuinely didn't think I could do it, I wouldn't put myself up for it."

The only pressure he does acknowledge is to complete all the groundwork, in tactics and preparation. But he will resist becoming the student who does all his revision only to flunk the exam, because he clams up. "It's often the rugby players who don't want to go in hard who end up getting hurt," he says. "If you go in half-heartedly, that's when you get thumped. If you're not committed, things don't go as well. I don't know why, but there's a sort of inevitability about it."

There is nothing half-hearted about a young man whose pulse might almost be said to be driven by two hearts. Grief is full of contradictions. It can make you ashamed, when you succumb anew to trivial vexations. But it can give you new life, too.

"You can imagine what it's like, riding a really good horse at a place like Seven Barrows," Waley-Cohen says. "It's seven in the morning, the sun's up, the world's beautiful. It's good to be alive. Life's short, live it. It comes back to racing – go and give it your best go. Sometimes, to do that, you're out running, and it's pissing with rain, and you ask yourself what on earth you're doing. And then you run past somebody on crutches. And you say: 'Come on, you're lucky. Keep running.'"

Turf account: Chris McGrath

Nap Imperial Djay (7.30 Wolverhampton) Has had plenty of chances but now on a very low mark and made a promising debut for his new stable here last time.

Next Best Storm Surge (4.50 Carlisle) Has shown sporadic promise over fences, but travelled well when beaten only by an improver last time.

One To Watch Misty Dancer (Venetia Williams) Again seemed not to stay 3m at Huntingdon the other day but went well for a long way off a sliding mark in finishing fourth to Noakarad De Verzee.

Where The Money's Going Drumbaloo, unbeaten in completed starts (he fell on his point-to-point debut but has won four times since) is 8-1 from 10-1 with Paddy Power for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at Cheltenham next week.

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