Sam Twiston-Davies is after spending over an hour on the phone talking to the Racing Post. Around him, steaming dishes are served up from a bustling kitchen, the volume of a growing crowd increases as the abundance of free craft beers start to lubricate conversations. I want to grab him for a quick chat but I’m conscious he’s probably a bit weary after his marathon conversation.
I suggest a 10 minute break so he can briefly recharge his batteries before hitting the stage for Paddy Power’s Cheltenham Preview Night in aid of the Injured Jockeys’ Fund. He looks at me like I’ve just revealed the grim reality behind Santa Claus.
“Absolutely not! I just love talking about horse racing. Let’s talk about horse racing!” he says with an infectious combination of enthusiasm and sincerity.
This young man is exceedingly polite, considerate and tinged with a dry humour. You instantly want to be best friends with him. The type of friend who would give you his last piece of bacon to help ease a hungover state; he’d retweet your not-especially-funny digital quip just so you don’t feel bad; and I just the impression he buys the best birthday presents.
Sam Strong Opinions
But across the table from me is no ‘yes man’ eager to give whatever answer elicits the most positive response from the people in his company. Don’t mistake his good manners for a lack of conviction. He may not be the man to whip a crowd up into a fervour with emotional vitriol, but there is an understated substance to his words. The role of the jockey often means we hear carefully crafted answers that sacrifice content for the most politically expedient message. Not with Sam. This is a man of firm opinions who believes what he is saying. This is also a man that believes the apparently bullet-proof Faugheen can be beaten in the Champion Hurdle. And this isn’t just the ‘my horse is better than yours’ tit-for-tat you expect from jockeys talking about their book of rides because it may well be another horse who upsets the Champion Hurdler elect. Sam is confident we’ll see the best of The New One on the opening day of Cheltenham, but acknowledges the flaws in his form.
You have to look at how Faugheen and The New One have come into the race. Neither horse has been taking on top class horses. We’ve both pussy-footed around a bit and beaten horses you really have to beat to be near Champion Hurdle standard, so that’s a slight concern. We haven’t beaten a whole lot. Then you look at two very hardy horses like Hurricane Fly and Jezki who have been kicking lumps out of each other all season. That form looks much more solid.
Jump over to the latest Champion Hurdle odds: mobile | desktop Another potential flaw in The New One’s form stems from his outing at Haydock in January. He made heavy weather of beating horses not considered near the top of Britain’s shallow pool of two-mile hurdling talent. It’s rare to see a winning horse inspire such scenes of dejection. The general consensus was that it was a poor showing that would have him roughly jumping the last while the others passed the winning post in the Champion Hurdle. Sam doesn’t dispute that it was a substandard run, but a more objective view yielded positivity.
I’ve never been in a winner’s enclosure and seen such utter disappointment about a winner. Nothing went right that day. He jumped badly, the ground was against him, he didn’t travel well and he only just got home. But he won. He wasn’t at his best and he pulled it out of the bag to win ugly. It took an hour or so afterwards to think of the positives, but he showed us his gutsy side that day.
Once again, there’s a conviction and integrity to his words that makes you feel he’s not just drinking the Grange Hill Coolade. Likewise, his glowing report of the Champion Hurdle contender’s current welfare feels like more than a stock soundbite. “He had an easy few weeks after that race, but he’s got so much energy and he’s so fresh, his lad was begging us to do more work with him. He did his last bit of serious work on Tuesday morning and then the cotton wool goes on until the big day. The stable has hit some form leading into Cheltenham so I’m happy with where we’re at.”
No Guarantees I’ve Made The Rheu-ght Choice
The World Hurdle also represents a good chance of claiming on of the Festival’s headline attractions. After some speculation, Sam has opted to ride Saphir Du Rheu over Zarkandar, a horse who began the season with hopes of being a staying chaser but now resumes a promising career in long distance hurdling. Once again, there’s a sincerity to his words that communicates the horns of the dilemma.
Zarkandar is a class horse. I gave him a bad ride when we got chinned on the line in the Long Walk Hurdle but he’s class. What made the difference was what Paul Nicholls said to me when I got off Saphir Du Rheu after he beat Reve De Sivola in the Cleeve Hurdle. He said ‘I can get him a lot better’. That’s a very exciting thing to hear and that’s what swung it for me but it wouldn’t surprise me at all enough Zarkandar ended up winning.
Away from the big races, Sam has a surprising choice for his favourite ride of the Festival. It’s Sire Collognes in the Cross Country Chase. “It’s a race where a lot of punters head inside for a pint, but I love riding in it and I’ve got a big chance. He’s getting four pounds from the favourite who he beat over course and distance giving him nearly a stone back in December 2013. He’s not the most straightforward, but he’s got a solid profile and he’s overpriced. John Ferguson has asked me to ride Devilment in the Triumph and he’s up against it, but he’s a horse who is heading in the right direction. Blaklion is my ride in the Albert Bartlett and he’s another one I hope we’ll see the best of at Cheltenham.” Although now riding primarily for Paul Nicholls, his ride on The New One is a chance for a father-son victory that would make the yard’s season. “All my big wins are special, but there is nothing like winning one for Dad. When I won the Neptune on The New One, the feeling I had at the top of that hill was indescribable. I wanted to cry out of sheer joy. Knowing how much it means to Dad elevates it to another level.” On the flipside however, ‘Nige’ isn’t one for mollycoddling his son if he makes a mistake – even if that mistake was in the course of riding for someone else.
He’ll be the first one on the phone to me if he thinks I’ve done something wrong. And I may not want to hear it at the time, but once the red mist vanishes, I actually quite appreciate it. It’s hard to hear stuff like ‘you useless so and so’ but I wouldn’t be where I am today – riding some great horses for one of the biggest stables in the world – if it wasn’t for Dad’s honesty and guidance. Carl Llewellyn, who is a close family friend is the same. His phone call normally comes about two minutes after Dad’s.
Like most father-son relationships, there have been occasions when tempers flared beyond the usual knee-jerk snapping at each other. Sam recalls one incident in particular that occurred during his amateur days when his Dad felt his son had nearly gotten a strong fancy for a bumper at Chepstow brought down with some thoughtless riding. “We were tearing into each on the drive back home – total screaming match. He blamed me entirely. We got to a bridge and I shouted ‘I WILL JUMP!’. It was pure heat of the moment hot-headedness. We watched the race back with Carl and decided we were both a bit hasty. Five minutes later it was all forgotten about which is good. The bollockings have helped get me to where I am today.”
Trick Or Tweet?
The criticism isn’t just from his Dad. As one of the most active jockeys on Twitter, he experiences the good and bad of social media. “I love Twitter. I love when you win a big race, I could spend hours reading all the nice things people say about you.” But there are those days when things haven’t gone to plan and punters feel it in their pockets. Surprisingly, that’s also something he examines, even if it’s not pleasant.
“I read the bad stuff too. I don’t block many people. Some of it is just mindless abuse which goes in one ear and out the other, but some of it is actually helpful. Sometimes people point out at mistake I made in the race that I wasn’t even aware of. I’ll look back over the video and see that they’re spot on and improve on it next time out. Anything that helps me become a better jockey, I welcome.”
Throughout the evening, our master of ceremonies and resident Duracell bunny, Matt Chapman refers to Sam as ‘future Champion Jockey’. In response, Sam invariably smiles, makes some gestures of mild modesty and but ultimately receives the praise with an accepting charm. He may not say it outwardly, but you get the impression this is a young man who believes it’s possible and more importantly, is willing to work at. Nice guys may have a habit of finishing last, but with his gentle determination, Sam Twiston-Davies may be the man to lead them out of their slump.