‘How’s your shoulder?’ someone asked recently, and it was only then I realised, for the first time in a while, that my shoulder felt good again. In last year’s Grand National — you might recall if you watched it on television — I had a heavy fall when going well on Long Run, the wonderful horse on whom I won the Gold Cup. I landed on my shoulder and had to hobble off the course. Those famously intimidating Grand National fences may have been made a bit more forgiving in recent years — thank God! — but they are still huge, and when you fall going over one it hurts.
Not that I’m put off. The Grand National continues to excite me as much as any horse-racing romantic. The National crams every human emotion into about eight minutes. It’s probably the closest thing we have to have a gladiatorial test. In the weighing room before the race, you sit there with 40 other jockeys. You realise that one of you is about to become a hero, but there is a palpable sense of danger, too: probably one in four of you is going to have a serious tumble and might end up in hospital. So you feel all these conflicting emotions: fear and rivalry but also excitement and goodwill towards the people you are up against. When it all goes wrong, the camaraderie can get you through it. Sitting in an ambulance with Barry Geraghty at Aintree a few years ago after another fall, I remember saying to him, ‘This isn’t a great way to end a race.’ He smiled and replied, ‘I can think of a lot worse.’ I instantly realised he was right.
I’ll be riding Oscar Time on Saturday, barring a late withdrawal through injury. The experts aren’t expecting much from us: old horse, amateur jockey (I run a chain of dental practices for my day job), inexperienced trainer, they say. But we wouldn’t be running if we didn’t think we had a good chance; Oscar Time and I came second in this race in 2011, under a similar handicap; and he remains a terrific horse. The National can surprise everyone, so watch this space. Moreover, I promised my wife that one year I would win the National for her — and second place four years ago just won’t do!
Jockeys don’t always expect to win. Far from it. There are definitely jockeys who go around saying ‘I wish I wasn’t riding this horse!’ and who don’t fancy their chances of getting around. I once came in from a race having had a fall, and one of the jockeys approached me and said ‘I nearly called you before the race to tell you that that one was going to fall, but then you’d already accepted it so I decided not to.’ Well, thanks a lot.
Much of the attention in the build-up to Aintree this year has rightly been about A.P. McCoy, surely the greatest jockey of all time, who is retiring at the end of this season. About half the population, I expect, will be hoping that he can end his career in triumph on Saturday by winning atop Shutthefrontdoor. I realise it would make for more interesting copy were I to slag him off — but I’m afraid that, like everyone, I haven’t a bad word to say about A.P. He’s one of the few people who deserves to be called a legend. I remember once watching a video of race we’d run in together and, feeling quite bashful in front of the great man, I said, ‘Wow, I look a mess.’ ‘I don’t care if I finish the race backwards,’ he replied, ‘as long as I finish in front.’ That’s the spirit. He’ll be missed.
People find it funny that I work in dentistry, given that jockeys are notorious for having bad teeth — they often have them knocked out. What they don’t realise is that my company, Portman Dental, also sponsors jockeys’ mouthguards. Still, whenever I see a fellow rider plunge face first into the dirt, I think he better give us a call.
I prefer not to give tips, but The Spectator editor has asked me to say how I’d bet on the general election. Well, I may be biased, or perhaps I am unconsciously trying to appeal to what I imagine are the right-of-centre instincts of most Spectator readers, but my guess is that the Tories will do better than polls currently suggest. As a business owner — and one that works in health, supposedly Labour’s strong suit — I can see that the coalition have handled the economy with far more skill than their predecessors in government did. They have been pragmatic, and things are better than they were five years ago. Plus I can’t really believe that the good British people would elect Ed Miliband.
Sam Waley-Cohen rides the Grand National this Saturday on Oscar Time, the horse on which he came second in the race in 2011. His chain of dentists can be found at www.portmandental.co.uk. Sam Waley-Cohen is a businessman and amateur jockey.