Dundas Man - Sam Waley-Cohen

In 2011, Sam Waley-Cohen won the hugely prestigious King George VI Chase, and then two months later, became the first amateur jockey for 30 years to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the epitome of Britain’s National Hunt calendar. A few weeks later he finished second in the Grand National. Couple this with flying helicopters, climbing mountains, running marathons and being at the helm of Portman Dental, Sam has an insatiable thirst for life. We caught up with Sam at home in Fulham to talk about all things adrenalin, focus and exhilaration.

Sam wears the Cotton Navy

Dundas London: Why did you decide to ride in your first race and did the bug bite you there and then?

Sam Waley-Cohen: I always wanted to race. All the riding I did as a child was just preparation and waiting to be allowed to race. Once of my first memories is riding a rocking horse in a race. I started with lowly ambitions, to ride in a few point-to-points and have fun, try to be competitive and get around. Then you ride one good horse which takes you to an extraordinary place and you’re hooked. That’s what happened to me. We had a horse called Katerino; he was the first horse I ever rode at Cheltenham, it filled me with terror but fulfilled a dream and an ambition. I was just 17.

DL: Your first race at Cheltenham was yesterday, what is your training schedule to get in shape for these big races?

SW-C: I tend to keep quite fit anyway. I like running, playing tennis and boxing. I ride out every weekend. Then once racing starts that gets you the most fit, so by the time Cheltenham and Aintree come around I have had plenty of time to get my eye in and up to full riding fitness. This is my 20th season of racing so I know how to manage my weight.

DL: Now you are fit and ready to ride, how do you prepare for the big races?

SW-C: For the big races the pressure is to get on the right horse and get to the race in one piece. That’s not easy, you have to go after that and make it happen. You have to identify the horse that you want and build a relationship with the owner/trainer. There is a lot of manoeuvring that goes on behind the scenes. Once that has happened, I know I can ride a horse and win a race. There is a lot of expectation from the owners and I put pressure on myself, not to win, but to give the horse the chance to win. 

Sam Waley-Cohen rides Long Run to victory in Cheltenham Gold Cup


DL: As an amateur jockey, do the professionals give you get a hard time in the weighing room?

SW-C: It’s a professional environment and you absolutely have to prove yourself and earn their trust in the weighing room and on the horse. However, falls and hard yards to make weight all adds to the feeling of comradeship. Background becomes irrelevant, you start at the start and finish at the finish. Men/women, amateur/professionals all compete on equal terms, that’s a rarity and the beauty of racing. If you have a good horse, the jockey doesn’t have to be the champion jockey to win a race. It’s 95% horse, but the 5% that is the jockey is probably the difference between winning or not.

My life is slightly different. Juggling a full time job and racing is very difficult. I am riding at Cheltenham on Tuesday, going to Brussels for work on Wednesday, coming back to ride again on Thursday and Friday. Sometimes the contrast helps distract me so I am relaxed for each race. 

DL: What is going through your head during the race?

SW-C: It’s all about focus. You really can’t think about anything other than what you are doing. The moment your focus wavers is probably when it is going wrong. To start with I concentrate on keeping my horse balanced, in a rhythm and jumping cleanly, and then overlay tactics on top of that. If you think about tactics too early you override the really important fact of just getting the horse into the race. Then you start asking the questions; am I travelling well, where do I want to be, how are the horse around me going? I image it is close to what it would be to meditate, every other external noise is shut out and it is total focus on trying to win. 

DL: Racing is dangerous, would you say you are an adrenalin junkie or are you always in control?

SW-C: I definitely don’t feel in control! To ride in races like the Gold Cup or the Grand National you have to be on the very limit of what the horse can do, this is never a safe place. Everything is asking the question of your horse and yourself and that is the nature of the sport, there is no space for conservatism. I know I can get hurt, physically and mentally. Before a race I experience an all-encompassing set of emotions; the highest of highs and lowest of lows. But when you are traveling well around a big course and the horse is jumping well, 2 become 1, it’s an amazing feeling. 

Racing is dangerous, but to remove those dangerous elements would change the whole nature of the race and racing. There are always going to be bad days, it’s inextricable from racing. For example at the Grand National they have made the fences softer, shortened the gallop to the first fence, reduced the drops, but then the race is different, now you go faster, the horse is better and it’s even more of a cavalry charge. It is difficult to know where to draw the line. Changes were necessary, but it’s no longer the same race.

DL: Would you like your sons to follow in your footsteps around Aintree?

SW-C: Only if they would like to. You have to be a complete fool to be a jump jockey so I would only encourage them to do it to a level where they get fun and enjoyment out of it. It’s a great contrast to life. They are riding already, so watch this space. 

DL: What has been your best racing moment to date?

SW-C: Winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2011 on Long Run was pretty spectacular, but also winning for the first time at Cheltenham on Libertine. Libertine was an outsider so it was completely unexpected and very early in my career. Unadulterated pleasure of something unexpected. I am yet to win the Grand National, when that happens I will hang up my boots and give you my hat!

Sam wears the Dundas White

DL: And finally, when not in silks or a suit, linen shirts or brushed cotton?

SW-C: I am really enjoying this navy cotton, so I’m going to say Dundas Cotton but I do love a blue linen shirt.