Posts

Magical day with Long Run will never leave Sam Waley-Cohen

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”.

Sam Waley-Cohen and Long Run beat a clutch of racing greats in the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup
Sam Waley-Cohen and Long Run beat a clutch of racing greats in the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup (David Davies/PA)

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.

Heavyweights Denman (left) and Kauto Star, here meeting their boxing counterpart David Haye, could finish only second and third to Long Run in the 2011 Gold Cup
Heavyweights Denman (left) and Kauto Star, here meeting their boxing counterpart David Haye, could finish only second and third to Long Run in 2011 (Geoff Caddick/PA)

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.

'Job done' - Sam Waley-Cohen achieved a lifetime ambition with victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup
‘Job done’ – Sam Waley-Cohen achieved a lifetime ambition with victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup (David Davies/PA)

“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.

Sam Waley-Cohen was celebrating but aware he still needed to concentrate and make sure he weighed in at Cheltenham
Sam Waley-Cohen was celebrating but well aware he still needed to concentrate and make sure he weighed in at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA)

“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.”

The two Cheltenham heroes enjoy a quieter moment together, back at the ranch
The two Cheltenham heroes enjoy a quieter moment together, back at the ranch (Ben Birchall/PA)

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.

Gold Cup glory with Long Run was the stuff of dreams for Waley-Cohen

Long Run had to win a race for the ages as he surged clear of both Denman and Kauto Star to lift the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

A decade on, his name still resonates among his fellow heroes of a famed golden era of steeplechasing – as do the Corinthian achievements of father-and-son, owner-rider combination Robert and Sam Waley-Cohen.

Robert still recalls the “unimaginable” joy at seeing Long Run and Sam silence the doubters who wondered if an amateur jockey would be sufficiently adept for the most exacting of challenges, beating the very best to claim National Hunt racing’s greatest prize.

The Waley-Cohens and trainer Nicky Henderson (right) welcome Long Run home to Lambourn after his Gold Cup glory
The Waley-Cohens and trainer Nicky Henderson (right) welcome Long Run home to Lambourn after his Gold Cup glory (Ben Birchall/PA)

Waley-Cohen senior never harboured any such qualms – and vindication was emphatic.

Long Run had interrupted Kauto Star’s sequence of five King George VI Chase victories in six years – in an edition of the Kempton showpiece delayed three weeks by a frozen Christmas – and would go on to succeed Paul Nicholls’ great on Boxing Day 2012, too.

At the age of just six, his CV also included two Grade One victories in his native France and another on British debut in the 2009 Feltham Novices’ Chase at Kempton.

It was enough to send Long Run off favourite in his first Gold Cup to beat a mighty old guard comprising the three winners of four preceding renewals – dual hero Kauto Star, stablemate Denman and title-holder Imperial Commander.

Nonetheless, as the Waley-Cohens gathered to cheer on their horse and their man, there were thousands yet to be convinced about Long Run’s suitability to Cheltenham – where he had been beaten on his two previous visits, third in both the RSA Chase 12 months earlier and then the Paddy Power Gold Cup.

Waley-Cohen senior begged to differ.

Long Run (middle) left the mighty Denman ad Kauto Star in his wake as he won the 2011 Gold Cup
Long Run (middle) left the mighty Denman ad Kauto Star in his wake as he won the 2011 Gold Cup (David Davies/PA)

“I wasn’t at all concerned (about Cheltenham) – and unlike many others, I wasn’t at all concerned about his rider’s ability to handle it, although the pressure was considerable,” he said.

“He was more than capable of doing a good job.”

Ten years on, however, he is prepared to admit to a momentary consternation as to whether Long Run could match Nicholls’ two superstars as they joined battle ahead of him leaving Cheltenham’s back straight.

“There were definitely some concerns during the race, particularly when Kauto Star and Denman took each other on coming down the hill,” he said.

“As it turned out, that was probably to our advantage – they probably overdid it coming down the hill. But I thought ‘Oh no, we’re not quite good enough to get to them’ – then as he turned the corner and started to gain on them and jumped the second-last so well, I did shout extremely loudly.”

He was not alone.

“The noise from the place we were in was unbelievable from there to the line – we couldn’t quite believe what we’d just seen,” Waley-Cohen added.

“It was before the construction of the Princess Royal Stand, so we were in one of those ghastly little boxes in that old space – a whole bunch of us and a lot of Sam’s friends, including his then fiancee now wife.

“It was absolutely fantastic. It is the biggest National Hunt race there is – to win that with your horse and your son on board is just unimaginable.”

Yet he knew all along that – albeit with history against them – Long Run and his jockey had the credentials to become, respectively, the first six-year-old Gold Cup winner for almost half-a-century and first amateur to succeed since 1981.

“I thought he had every chance, and indeed he started favourite,” he said, referencing other factors behind Long Run’s near five-length defeat in handicap company four months earlier.

“It wasn’t that Cheltenham wasn’t his course, but two and a half miles wasn’t his trip – certainly not that early in the season.

“When he ran in the RSA, (trainer) Nicky (Henderson) said he was over the top by then. He’d been running in top-class races in France before he came over.

“He won Grade One races in five consecutive years, which is exceptional. He beat Denman, Kauto Star and Imperial Commander – the winners of umpteen Gold Cups before him – which was amazing.

“He’d also done something quite extraordinary the year before. As a three-year-old, he won the Grade One three-year-old hurdle in France, and as a four-year-old he won the Grade One four-year-old chase in France – which no other horse had ever done, and still hasn’t.

“Then he came over as a four-year-old, and in his first race in England he won the Feltham – so he’s the only four-year-old to have won two Grade One races in two different countries.”

Long Run was not, however, able to add a second Gold Cup – having to settle for third in both 2012 and 2013.

Waley-Cohen said: “The only thing I’ve never understood and never will, just to show how horses are not machines and how they break your heart, is how he didn’t win the Gold Cup the following year.

“Everything was going his way; Sam produced him perfectly, and he got beaten by two horses who had never beaten him on any other occasion.”

Long Run cannot tell us why, of course, either – but at the age of 16, five years after his retirement, he is still compensating his owner with a larger-than-life presence at their home on the Warwickshire-Oxfordshire border.

“He’s very much still around – he’s still with us at Upton,” said Waley-Cohen.

“We decided to allow him have a quite normal life, enjoying going out – he doesn’t like hunting, because he can’t understand why things don’t happen a bit quicker.

“He’s happy to stand around for 20 minutes, then he says ‘Right, time for something to happen now!’

“I didn’t want to train him for dressage or to go showing – he’s much too impatient to go showing. We did actually take him once to show off Gold Cup winners at Cheltenham, and he was a complete nightmare – he bounced around the paddock as though he was going to run in a race.

“My eldest son Marcus rides him a lot around the farm, and he enjoys going with the kids. He’s like an old pro going away from home, and an absolute idiot racehorse going back towards home!”

The memories endure for the Waley-Cohens, and the future promises much – including perhaps at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, and in part thanks to Long Run’s lineage.

Long Run's half-sister Liberthine was a winner over the big fences at Aintree, ridden by Sam Waley-Cohen in the 2006 Topham
Long Run’s half-sister Liberthine was a winner over the big fences at Aintree, ridden by Sam Waley-Cohen in the 2006 Topham (Gareth Copley/PA)

Waley-Cohen bought him when he started to show great promise for owner Marie-Christine Gabeur and maestro French trainer Guillaume Macaire – having previously acquired Long Run’s half-sister Liberthine from the same source.

She went on to be a Cheltenham Festival winner and also mastered Aintree’s fences as heroine of the 2006 Topham Chase.

Her son Sure Touch won his bumper debut at Wincanton in January, and on Gold Cup day on March 19 the first edition of Cheltenham’s newest race – the Liberthine Mares Chase – will honour her.

The competition will be formidable, but Waley-Cohen will be trying to win it 10 years on from Long Run’s triumph.

“They’re both bred by Madame Benoit Gabeur,” he said of Long Run and Liberthine.

“Benoit also bred (dual Champion Chase winner) Master Minded, but I think they are all in his wife’s name.

“I bought Liberthine, who is five or six years older – she was Sam’s first ever winner against professionals in a novice chase at Stratford – (and then) Long Run was the fourth I bought out of the mare.

Elusive Belle (right) may bid to mark the 10th anniversary of Long Run's Gold Cup glory in style at Cheltenham this year
Elusive Belle (right) may bid to mark the 10th anniversary of Long Run’s Gold Cup glory in style at Cheltenham this year (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“Sure Touch won his bumper. Liberthine’s first foal won black type, and her second foal won a bumper – both fillies, both with foals in the yard now.

“She’s now retired, but she’s a granny.”

There will be no Cheltenham challenge this spring for Sure Touch, as Waley-Cohen nurtures a bright future for the five-year-old, but he could yet be double-handed in pursuit of the race named after Long Run’s sibling, on the anniversary of his Gold Cup glory.

“I won’t run Sure Touch (in the Champion Bumper), because I think it’s too tough a race for horses you hope have a very good future,” he said.

“But I definitely will run, if I possibly can, two or three others (at Cheltenham).”

Among them, Elusive Belle and Lust For Glory are contenders in the Liberthine – and although currently outsiders behind Irish big-hitters such as Elimay, no one will treasure victory more than their owner.

Covid-19 restrictions will prevent his son Sam from riding unless the current suspension of amateur jockeys lapses – but the Waley-Cohens may nonetheless yet be able to celebrate again on Gold Cup day 2021.