The unmatchable thrill of winning the 2011 Gold Cup on Long Run will live with Sam Waley-Cohen forever.
A decade has passed since he became the first amateur jockey in 30 years to triumph in Cheltenham’s greatest race of all, in his father Robert’s colours and ahead of three previous Gold Cup heroes – the mighty Denman, dual winner Kauto Star and reigning champion Imperial Commander.
Yet as another Festival fast approaches, with near another half-century of winners to his name in the intervening years, it is almost an involuntary reflex for Waley-Cohen to relive the “extraordinary, overwhelming experience”.
The pre-race and mid-race doubts, the elation, his attempts to stay focused and ensure a successful weigh-in amid the celebratory mayhem around him all come flooding back in an instant.
Above all, though, he remembers those seconds when Long Run surged upsides Paul Nicholls’ two racing greats and then the realisation that, for the second time in little more than two months after victory in the King George VI at Kempton, the six-year-old was going to take the mighty Kauto Star’s measure – and this time deliver the prize the Waley-Cohens wanted most of all.
“The moment at the top of the hill – being there with Imperial Commander and Kauto and Denman, with the great jockeys – you think ‘this is the moment, this is do or die’,” he said.
“That will never leave me, because it was just ‘go all out’.
“Then just starting to pull out and join Kauto and Denman, then meet the last on a flying stride, land together and accelerate away – I’ll never forget that 10 seconds of going up the hill thinking ‘you’re going to win the Gold Cup … if only you can get to the line!'”
Long Run was sent off favourite in a titanic edition of National Hunt’s holy grail, having had the king of Kempton Kauto Star almost 20 lengths behind him when winning the King George – delayed by a frost-bound Christmas into the new year until mid-January.
The horse Waley-Cohen’s father had bought as a hugely-promising three-year-old in his native France had since won four Grade Ones either side of the Channel.
But on his only two trips to Cheltenham, he had come up short – and despite his jockey’s instincts that there were sound reasons other than the course itself, he could not quite discount lingering concerns.
“Ultimately, he hadn’t run great at Cheltenham,” said Waley-Cohen.
“But we never really thought it was the course – it was just things hadn’t quite worked out for him.
“In the Paddy Power and the RSA, he just hadn’t been on his best form in either race.
“We never really knew why, but he just wasn’t. So I never felt that the course itself was a problem for him – but when you’ve been there twice and you haven’t quite delivered, the evidence isn’t supporting you.”
If that unresolved issue was at the back of his mind, the honed, flesh-and-blood presence of three more big problems loomed directly in front of him.
“I was more worried by the fact there was Denman, Kauto Star and Imperial Commander (in opposition),” he said.
“(But) in a way, it took the pressure off. You go there knowing you could run the best race of your life and not win against these huge legends of the sport.
“The worst races are ones where you think you’re bang on to win it, and you’ve just got to jump round. That’s the worst as a jockey – so it was one to go and just try to keep calm, see what happened, put your best foot forward and try to get the best run round you could.”
Even so, he still could not quite help second-guessing himself, and Long Run, just a little – and the race did not immediately dispel the qualms.
“It was pretty much all doubt!” he added.
“He was pretty lit up at places in the race, and I was having to go long where I didn’t always want to be going long – because going short wasn’t really working for us.
“When you start making little niggly mistakes in a race like that they take their toll. That was no question a worry for me.
“I hit a flat spot just after the water to the open ditch going up the hill – and thought ‘it’s a long way from home to be niggling and pushing from here’.”
It was about to become clear, though, that the contours of Cheltenham could play to Long Run’s strengths rather than compromise him.
“When we started coming down the hill, actually it felt like I was in the right place and could stick with them close enough,” Waley-Cohen added.
“You don’t know if you’re going past horses like that, so I wouldn’t say I knew I had it.
“But once he came off the bend and went past them, that was definitely the moment where you think ‘this is happening’.”
Yet even as the capacity crowd, his nearest and dearest among them, cheered him over the line, Waley-Cohen knew he could not allow himself to relax.
“It’s a huge release, because you’ve put so much effort into staying in one piece and getting there confidently and not letting the occasion overwhelm you, and going there to take your chance – and then it’s over,” he said.
“(But) you haven’t got your job done (yet), because you’ve still got to get your horse back in one piece.
“There’s that (chance) that you get over-excited, forget to weigh in, or the saddle slips or the weight cloth isn’t there – it’s just not done.”
It soon was, of course, and Waley-Cohen had to begin a more enviable process – coming to terms with the achievement of a lifetime ambition.
“Being met on the walk-in by dad and my brother, I had to keep it all together,” he said.
“There’s the (victory) music going – and it’s an intense, intense experience.
“It’s just an extraordinary, overwhelming experience – such an amphitheatre, where you ride in and you’ve got people everywhere, in the parade ring, all the way around the outside cheering and shouting, the music blaring.
“You’re the centre of 10,000 faces staring and cheering.”
The magic of the Cheltenham Festival, of course, is that they – and thousands more who were not even there – can still picture the scene almost as well as Waley-Cohen himself.