It would be easy to resent Sam Waley-Cohen. He is a rich boy from a well-known racing family who runs his own successful business. In his spare time, what little he has, he rides his father’s horses in the world’s biggest jump races. He’s won the Cheltenham Gold Cup and King George VI Chase, and finished second in the Grand National. Alfred Dunhill, the British luxury men’s brand, is so impressed by his achievements on and off the turf that they’ve brought out a documentary film about him, called For The Love.
But we shouldn’t be bitter. When you realise what it takes to do what he does, jealousy gives way to admiration, and a sense of relief, actually, that it’s Sam, not you, who has to live his life. Five days before this interview, for instance, Sam had a nasty fall at Ascot and broke two ribs. (‘I got crushed,’ he says, like a public schoolboy recalling a heavy night out.) Come Monday, however, he was back at his day job as chief executive of a chain of dental practices, which he started from scratch and which now employs some 300 people.
Because of his work, Sam only has time for 30 to 40 races a year. Professional jockeys ride anything up to a thousand. And yet he wins. How does he do it? ‘It’s rarely me as the jockey that makes the key difference,’ he begins, modestly. ‘The horse has to win the race. The truth is, I’m an amateur in name but I don’t take a very amateurish approach. If you are going to ride against professionals, you are going to be judged against them, and so you need to be in a position where you feel you can compete, which means making sacrifices.’
Sam doesn’t have much room for a social life. He trains for at least an hour every day of the working week. Because of the handicapping system, he has to put on and lose weight like a prizefighter. Before his last race, he shed nine pounds in a week. Where does he find the motivation? ‘Well, my mother says I have always been completely bloody-minded,’ he laughs.
There’s something else, though: Sam’s younger brother Thomas died of cancer at the age of 20. Sam says the courage with which Thomas faced death has inspired him ‘just never to be lazy and to enjoy everything’. ‘Thomas’s approach to it was “OK, I’m just going to enjoy everything and do everything I possibly can do.” That’s had a massive impact on the way I live my life.’
Sam has been racing horses since before he can remember. As a young man he won point-to-points, but it took an odd twist of fate to throw him into the big time. His father had bought a horse with raw promise called Libertine. Libertine’s trainer wanted to race him at the Cheltenham Festival, but the jockey whom the trainer wanted to use refused to ride such an inexperienced youngster for fear of injuring himself. ‘So Dad said, “Sam will ride him.” And I was like, OK! I had to lose quite a bit of weight, but I went out and rode her and she won. It was then that I was, like, “Wow, I’ve won a race against professionals on a professional course and that was like, boom.”’
It’s on Libertine’s brother, Long Run, that Sam has enjoyed his most famous wins. Sam and his father are hoping for more: Long Run is favourite to triumph again in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, and expected to challenge once more for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. Sam’s eager not to look ahead, though. ‘One of the bits we try very hard to do is to concentrate on the journey. If you pin everything on the outcome, you’re going to turn into a rigid brick.’
It’s lucky that the ‘journey’, the process, is what Sam seems to relish most. ‘I just love riding Long Run. It’s a five o’clock start, driving an hour and a quarter to freeze my balls off in darkest Berkshire. But once I get on the horse it’s like, “Yes, that’s why!” The sun comes up and you’re on a great horse and it’s just such a great, romantic experience. It is such a nice contrast between the cut and thrust of business and day-to-day life.’
Sam’s married now — his wife is expecting their first child — and he concedes that establishing a work/racing-life balance can prove difficult. ‘My wife says, “You never fucking listen!” I’ve got part of my brain thinking about teeth, part of my brain thinking about racing, another part thinking about talking to journalists, and I’ve got her saying, “Put the orange juice back in the fridge”, and if you don’t you get bollocked.’
It must put him at a competitive disadvantage. But he insists that being an amateur is also a boon. ‘I don’t have that psychological pressure of “If I don’t ride this week, or I get injured, I won’t get paid, or if I ride a bad race, I won’t get another ride and what the hell am I going to do? I might not be able to feed my kids.” The difference between electing to do something and it being an obligation is huge.’
Don’t the other jockeys envy his freedom? ‘You’d guess they must think, “Oh, this posh boy turns up on the weekend to ride.” But the truth is when you are down at the start, none of that matters. There’s a camaraderie. It doesn’t matter what your background is, it still hurts when you’re battered and bruised.’
Sam, bold to his bootstraps, clearly revels in the sheer bloody masochism of his sport. ‘If you said to most people who go riding, you’ll fall once in every eight or nine times you race, they’d say you’re nuts, I’m not going! You have to be crazy.’
Is it, then, the thrill of fear that drives him? For his holidays, he likes to go bungee-jumping and hang-gliding. Yet perhaps pain is his spur — the pain of training, of losing, of falling. ‘When I fall, my first thought is “Shit, I could have won that!” But then you bounce — you literally bounce! — off the ground, and you get this amazing adrenaline kick.’
Even winning involves suffering. ‘Actually if you win,’ he says, ‘it can be a nightmare because then you’ve done it. And you think “Now what?” I would love to talk to some of the athletes who won gold at the Olympics and ask, “You put everything into it, you’ve done it — great. What are you going to do next?” You’ve just got to push yourself higher.’
‘Oh God,’ he adds, turning self-conscious. ‘I must sound like American Psycho! Put it this way, if I’d won the Grand National in the same year as the Gold Cup, I’d have been a real prick!’
For The Love can be viewed in full at www.youtube.com/AlfredDunhill