Following his unexpected retirement announcement after the Aintree Foxhunter's, stating that his final ride would be in Saturday's Grand National, Sam Waley-Cohen quickly rose to the top of the PPORA's Feature Friday list. However when he, somewhat unexpectedly, crossed the finish line of the world's greatest steeplechase in front on 50-1 shot Noble Yeats, the PPORA quickly become one in a multitude of media outlets wanting to share Sam's fairy tale story. Not only is Sam the most successful amateur over the famous fences to date, with a phenomenal seven victories from 40 starts over them, and the only amateur rider to win both the Cheltenham Gold Cup (Long Run in 2011) and the Grand National, he also has point-to-pointing running through his veins. Brought up supporting his father, Robert's, runners at various pointing tracks, 40-year-old Sam had his first ride at 17 and is involved in all aspects of racehorses, from breeding to being the one in the saddle. As well as a long list of victories on the big stage, Sam rode over 100 winners in points and hunter chases from over 300 starts; a phenomenal achievement with one third of his rides finishing in front!
So, after waiting patiently for our turn, the PPORA was able to ask Sam the burning questions we'd had a couple of weeks to gather, about his huge final win, his career in the saddle and quite how pointing has played a role in it all.
We have to ask, what was the first thought going through your mind as you crossed the Grand National finish line in front?!
Disbelief really! It was this moment of both unbelievable happiness and emotion along with disbelief. Then mostly it was "pull up, look after the horse and don’t forget to weigh in". Then (following weighing in and result being confirmed) it's real, because until then as a jockey it's not real. You haven't won your race; you're one of the few people on the racecourse who's still racing in their mind.
What feeling did Noble Yeats give you during your ride in the National?
Initially, not much of a feeling! Mostly "I don't want to be here" and then as he grew in confidence and started to take to it, it was a real sense of the possible. He was travelling well and staying in it, and I was just trying to keep building his confidence, keep him going forward and try and save as much energy as I could.
Who gave you the best ride over the Grand National fences?
Without being too obvious, when they win, you always have an amazing time! Partly because the horse has to give you such a good ride to win round there. Katarino was trained at home, qualified in point-to-points and was my first winner over those fences; that was just amazing and a real family day. Oscar Time when he won the Becher aged 13, again trained from home and we'd been having fun with him pointing too; those days were just incredible.
What were your thoughts as you were legged up for your final race in the saddle?
You're concentrating so hard it's not even that relevant that it's your last race; you're still very much in race mode and focused, but also trying to take it all in and enjoy it. Make sure you drink it all in because it will be the last time!
How did you first get involved in point-to-pointing?
I started off riding in the Pony Club then joined the GB pony event teams, but I always wanted to ride pointing. My first ride was aged 17 at our local point-to-point, Mollington, on Wishing William and I just really enjoyed it and kept wanting to do more.
There's been much speculation over the years about you turning professional. Did you ever consider this? What were your reasons for staying amateur?
No, I never considered going professional because I wanted to be able to point-to-point and ride in the amateur races and I loved it for the fun of it, the sport of it, not as a way to make a living.
What do you think lies for the future of pointing?
I think pointing needs to keep the fun in the game; there needs to be space for everyone, from the people who are doing it at the highest level and people that are enjoying it as a fun day out. Pointing should be good fun and it doesn’t want to get too serious and professional, in my opinion. Ultimately racing is a mad way to spend your time, so we should keep in mind that we're all mad and not take it too seriously!
It has been well documented that you are the first amateur winner of the National since 1990, with far fewer amateur jockeys participating in recent years. What do you think amateurs bring to the sport and why are they important?
Amateurs bring so much passion, energy and authenticity to the sport, because we're all just doing it for love and fun. Of course, pointing is an entry for so many people into becoming jockeys, trainers, administrators running the sport etc, so it's a great gateway into the sport. It's important to the whole sport that we keep connected to our roots and the grassroots of racing is the rural community and point-to-pointing.
What do you think the importance of point-to-pointing has in the world of racing?
To state the obvious, it's a great place for jockeys and trainers to learn, a place to bring on young horses and it connects National Hunt racing into the grassroots. It is the heartbeat of the sport.
What is your day job?
I'm Chief Executive of Portman Dental Care.
How did you juggle riding racing and your many other commitments, such as work & family?
You have to have them all hand in glove with each other; it's hard to separate them. The best example was after the Grand National having my kids, wife and family on the podium together - you have keep to everything connected and sometimes you're making calls 20 minutes before the race, hang up, jump on the horse, ride your race and 20 minutes later you're back on phone calls. It's just how it works!
If you could change one thing in pointing/racing, what would it be?
We need to keep giving great opportunities for horses and jockeys with less experience. I would love to see more weight allowances to encourage people with less experience to keep coming into the races. There's an argument to say professional trainers should be able to train horses for hunter chases, but they should carry a penalty, and that would encourage more people to take on the professional trainers. We want to keep attracting people who don't think it's impossible to compete and have some fun along the way.
What’s your earliest pointing memory?
Freezing to death at Larkhill and walking the course at Tweseldown!
How have you found the aftermath of winning the Grand National?
People have been so generous and so genuinely pleased. The pointing community really is part of that. Somebody posted a video of people watching and cheering in the tent at Mollington, and you realise that we are all one big community of enthusiasts.
As an amateur with a full-time job alongside riding racing, how did you work on your fitness & riding, to ensure you rode to your best ability?
It's not easy! We don’t have many horses at home anymore and I didn't have time to ride that much, but I took whatever chance I could to school and ride out, and generally did something to make sure that my lungs and legs weren't going to give out on me if I ended up in a good, close finish. You try and prepare but there's no question that at the beginning of the season you're not as fit as at the end of the season.
Where’s your favourite point-to-point & why?
Mollington is our local. It's the heart of Warwickshire, we always have a great day there with family and we grew up going there. It's where it all started!
Your family has always highlighted that racing is something that you do very much as a family and as a hobby. How do you plan to be involved in pointing following your retirement from the saddle?
It's a complete hobby! I mean we take it very seriously; we want to be good at it and we want to have fun and be successful, but it is a hobby, no two ways about it! Despite not being in the saddle, I love pointing and will continue to have pointers at home, breed our homebreds and give it a go. Inevitably it will continue to be part of my life.
Did you have to watch your weight whilst riding?
Yes, it's part of being fit and with racing you never know if someone's going to call you up asking if you can ride at 10st, so I always tried to keep my fitness and weight under control.
Any hobbies outside of horses?
Anything outdoorsy! I like being in the mountains, climbing and anything that involves fresh air and gets me out and about.
We can't thank Sam enough for taking the time to chat to us. It was fantastic to see someone who started in the pointing field, taking home the biggest win of them all, and still link everything back to his pointing experience. We doubt there was a dry eye in the country when Sam crossed that finish line, but particularly in the pointing community. An inspiration to us all, from those starting out in the world of racing, looking for their place, to those chasing down titles, working hard day in day out, for that taste of glory.
Images kindly provided by Chasdog Photography - Neale Blackburn