Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“I could give him a run for his money”: Harry Cobden on the battle for the jockey’s title

Posted on 27 February 2021 by Tadhg Creedon
Harry Cobden celebrating after winning the Grade One Challow Hurdle aboard Bravemansgame at Newbury racecourse (Source: racingtv.com)

From riding ponies at age nine, Harry Cobden, now 22, is stable jockey to 11-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls. He has nine grade one victories to his name and to say he is living the dream may be an understatement.

Brought up on a farm in Somerset, it was clear from an early age that riding was something Cobden was born to do. The first to give him the leg up was local trainer Ron Hodges, a family friend of Cobden’s grandparents who bought half of his first racing pony.

Cobden would learn the ropes at Hodges while sticking it out at school until age 16. The lessons learned on the pony racing circuit would become invaluable for the two-time Cheltenham Festival winner,

“You learn a hell of a lot. Just getting a feel for going at speed on horses and putting colours on the first time…racing boots. All small stepping stones to being a professional jockey.”

Cobden may have left school with only a handful of GSCEs, but not many 22-year-olds have 13 acres of farmland and a shooting business to their name. None of this was handed on a plate to Cobden though. He invested the money he earned from his first Grade One win on Irving in November 2016, as well as winning the conditional jockeys title at the end of the season.

“I suppose it was a brave call from Paul to let me ride in a graded race like the Fighting Fifth still claiming. I started to get more high-profile weekend rides after that.

“Champion conditional was always the aim but to ride the bigger winners at a young age really helps you going forward because then you are trusted to take on bigger tasks.”

Topofthegame and Harry Cobden winning the 2019 RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival (Source: Getty Images)

“Paul thought I was going to leave”

Cobden’s first season as a pro jockey was 2017/18, which he ended with 76 winners and three Grade One victories to his name. Politologue, a dashing grey was the first of those in the 2017 Tingle Creek at Sandown.

“Politologue was one of the bigger moments in my career as it was my first big ride for the west country on a Saturday for Paul. These things happens because it was Sam Twiston-Davies misfortune that he was injured and I luckily got the call up.

“You got to prove your good enough then, step up to the mark and get the job done,” Cobden said.

The Somerset man continued to do just that when claiming his first Cheltenham Festival winner aboard Kilbricken Storm for trainer Colin Tizzard. The Gold Cup winning trainer is another who has helped mould the 22-year-olds career.

In fact, Cobden’s life could have taken a different path in May 2018:

“I was either going to ride for Tizzard and be his stable jockey at the time or I was going to stay with Paul and I had to choose which job I was going to take. I rode like 50 winners for Colin that year and everything was going right.

Cobden added: “I suppose Paul thought I was going to leave and that’s why he offered me the job. And you just have to look at his record and that’s why I stayed because I knew I’d be riding quality horses.”

A job that has been held by Ruby Walsh in the past, Nicholls has produced national hunt greats such as Kauto Star, Big Bucks and Master Minded.

Life in the saddle is rarely simple though and a month later, he suffered a fractured neck in a fall at Market Rasen; only to bounce back with five winners at Chepstow’s October meeting and a career-best 109 winners by the end of the season.

Aswell as Grade One glory aboard Clan Des Obeaux in the King George, the Ascot Chase with Cyrname and the giant Topofthegame in the 2019 RSA Chase.

“All the horses were in top form, they were all winning. I could have ridden Politologue in the King George but I thought Clan Des Obeaux had a better chance. After his run in the Betfair Chase, I knew he would have improved which he duly did.

“Then obviously Cyrname just sprouted wings, first winning a handicap off 150 around Ascot and then he went and won the Ascot Chase. It was a phenomenal couple of months really,” Cobden reminisced.

It is often said we are defined by the choices we make. In jockey’s terms that equates to choosing the right mount on the big days. Opting for Cyrname over old friend Clan Des Obeaux, who would subsequently retain his King George crown was always going to be a tough pill to swallow.

“You know it’s just one of those things where you got to think your lucky to be in that position to be able to choose over two good horses.

“It’s happened again since then in the 2020 Champion Chase where I got off Politologue to ride Dynamite Dollars and he went and won it. It’s very frustrating but you can’t dwell on the subject, you just have to move on and try to put it right.”

Cobden and Cyrname in full flight during the Ascot Chase of February 15th, 2020 at Ascot racecourse (Source: Getty Images)

Quest for a title

For all the 128 Grade Ones compiled by Nicholls, there has never been a jockey’s title through Ditcheat. Not even a certain Ruby Walsh could achieve this feat. Currently, the nine time Grade One winner sits 3rd in the jockey’s championship.

“I thought we’d have a good go at the title this season and see if I can get near Brian Hughes. 14 behind as we stand now and if we have a good couple of months from now until the end of the season, I possibly could get close to him and give him a run for his money.”

Either way, the fresh faced 22-year-old is on course to smash his previous career best tally, having already guided home 90 winners. With the spring festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree on the horizon, he has plenty to look forward to including recent Grade One Challow Hurdle winner Bravemansgame, who Nicholls has compared to the mighty Denman.

“Bravemansgame is the only horse we have got in the championship hurdles at Cheltenham that is capable of competing with the Irish because Willie’s team at the Dublin Racing Festival looked amazing.”

Cobden added: “I believe our horse is one of the best novice hurdlers in this country though. He seems a serious animal and whatever he does in the Ballymore Hurdle will be a stepping stone to going chasing because he’s a big scopey sort of horse.”

While exciting hurdlers McFabolous and the Alex Ferguson-owned Monmiral are expected to wait for Aintree’s Grand National meeting, staying chaser Next Destination is being aimed at one of the Cheltenham Festivals most arduous tests, the three-mile six-furlong National Hunt Chase.

“He’s quite a laid-back horse and I think he’d be tailormade for the race he because he races a little bit behind the bridle, and the more you get after him the more he gives.

“I think that’s exactly the sort of horse you need for that race, something that will stay going. For an older horse, he’s got very low mileage on the clock and I could see him running well,” Cobden exclaimed.

Being a national hunt jockey is a brave man’s game, but it’s a business the Somerset man was made for. If you could paint a picture of how a jockey should apply himself on and off the racecourse, Cobden is just that: Personable, charming and an ambassador for Great British Racing, he understands his position as a role model for the sport.

Once a prodigy, then a talent and now a star, Cobden is grateful for the journey. Whether he usurps Hughes and Harry Skelton to claim the jockeys title or adds another Cheltenham Festival winner next month, these are just the opening chapters of what promises to be a glittering career.