Waley-Cohen chases Oscar triumph to produce unique amateur double

Dashing adventurer tells Chris McGrath how matching his Gold Cup win would make a 'dream year'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Once-a-year punters must look with pity upon those who try to find the John Smith's Grand National winner by painfully deciphering the formbook.

By now, surely, everyone knows you simply need the best "story". And even a photo finish between Paul and Nina Carberry – or those other sibling rivals, Andrew and Robbie McNamara, or Leighton and Paddy Aspell – would be unlikely to match the tabloid impact of Sam Waley-Cohen.

For one thing, the working population already owes a debt to this dashing patrician adventurer. As a mutual friend of Prince William and his fiancée, Waley-Cohen is reputed to have assisted the 2007 rapprochement that ultimately resulted in a public holiday later this month. He detests gauche curiosity about this episode, but even he may view a renewed inquisition as a tolerable price to pay for success on Oscar Time today.

Last month, Waley-Cohen beat the professionals in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, wearing the chocolate and orange silks of his father, Robert, on Long Run. While other jockeys have won both races in the same season – most recently Jim Culloty in 2002 – it would be unprecedented for an amateur to add the National to a Gold Cup. And, in contrast with the four other amateurs alongside him today, Waley-Cohen is a genuine Corinthian throwback. He runs a chain of dental practices, and must fit schooling sessions into a schedule already stretched by a bewildering variety of accomplishments – not to mention his own wedding, in June.

If Waley-Cohen seems to squeeze two lives into one, it is no coincidence. In 2004 he lost his younger brother to cancer, and has since dedicated his every fulfilment to Tom's memory. Tom's initials, indeed, are stitched into his saddle. The emergence of Long Run has been charged with emotion, for his whole family, and Waley-Cohen will not demur if Oscar Time seems to obey some higher destiny in picking his way through the hazards today. "There was an extraordinary upswelling of support after Cheltenham," he says. "A lot of people wrote letters to say how much it meant to them. The whole thing has generated an enormous amount of goodwill."

Not that he needed Cheltenham to convince him that he can hold his own against Messrs Walsh and McCoy. Waley-Cohen arguably has a better record over the National fences than anyone in the race. From 10 mounts, he has had three winners – including two in 24 hours at the 2006 meeting here. He also completed the National itself at the first attempt, finishing fifth in 2007, albeit he got no further than the second in his only subsequent ride. "In a normal race there are many more factors you can control, and you try to ride to your own strengths," he says. "But round the National course, I think the great thing is to just go out there and try to enjoy it – especially when you're riding a good horse you can believe in."

Oscar Time is one such, having shown luminous promise behind The Midnight Club in their trial at Fairyhouse in February. Waley-Cohen had profiled previous Aintree achievers, and his father bought into the horse after he had finished second in the Irish National. "We were looking for a horse with quality and enthusiasm, that can jump through a crowd," he explains. "He ticks all those boxes. We were delighted with his performance at Fairyhouse and Martin [Lynch, his trainer] is convinced he'll handle the faster ground. It's been a man-and-horse story with Martin. He bought Oscar Time unbroken, has only got 10 or 11 in training, and has all but slept in the same box for the last five years. If he says the horse will handle the ground, we'd be confident he will."

It is not inconceivable that Oscar Time could start favourite. Privileged as he is, however, Waley-Cohen will always retain a due perspective on good days and bad. "Obviously in racing you always hope, and dream – but you don't really allow yourself to believe," he says. "Long ago, even when you were on a Welsh mountain pony, jumping poles, you were jumping Becher's Brook and the Canal Turn. So to be here doing the real thing is a boyhood dream. I feel I've been saying that a lot this season. But it really has been."