Owen’s quest

Striker turns jockey in as­ton­ish­ing char­ity bid

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - Mar­cus Army­tage RAC­ING CORRESPONDENT

In rac­ing cir­cles, at least, Michael Owen is best known as the en­thu­si­as­tic owner-breeder of Ir­ish St Leger win­ner Brown Pan­ther. His pas­sion for the sport has seen him go fur­ther than the ma­jor­ity of other own­ers by in­vest­ing in his own Cheshire yard, Manor House Sta­bles.

His hands-on in­volve­ment at Manor House, where Tom Das­combe is the trainer, is more to do with look­ing af­ter the other own­ers than phys­i­cally help­ing with the horses.

But on Fri­day Nov 24 the for­mer Eng­land foot­baller – whose jour­neys took him from Liver­pool to Real Madrid, New­cas­tle and Manch­ester United – will take his par­tic­i­pa­tion to an­other level when he makes his race­course de­but as a jockey in a char­ity race at As­cot in aid of the Prince’s Coun­try­side Fund.

“When I re­tired from foot­ball I thought I’d do the odd thing for char­ity,” he said, ex­plain­ing why he had un­der­taken the chal­lenge. “I raised £75,000 do­ing the Lon­don Marathon.

“The team said it was about time I did an­other fundraiser. Ev­ery­one as­sumes I ride be­cause I own a yard but the only time I’d ever sat on a pony was aged eight on a hol­i­day to Ibiza.”

Ev­ery­one can kick a ball in much the same way that ev­ery­one can sit on a horse but not ev­ery­one can drib­ble it around sev­eral Ar­gen­tine de­fend­ers and score in a World Cup knock­out match, as Owen fa­mously did as an 18 year-old in 1998. And, as Owen soon found out, sit­ting on a horse is one thing, ac­tu­ally rid­ing it an­other. “I thought it should be pretty straight­for­ward,” he said. “I’d have the fa­cil­ity to my­self, I could prac­tise as much or as lit­tle as I wanted and the Prince’s Coun­try­side Fund is a great cause.

“I’ve al­ways ad­mired jock­eys and thought the thrill of rid­ing a fast one must be amaz­ing and here we are now with not long to go and I’m feel­ing pretty ner­vous.”

For a be­gin­ner, Owen is re­mark­ably con­fi­dent and fear­less, although that was shaken slightly by his as­sess­ment day at the Bri­tish Rac­ing School last month when he fell off twice, although he even man­aged to find a pos­i­tive in that. “I could have fallen off 10 times but I clung on eight times,” he laughed. “The horses were whip­ping round hav­ing a laugh at us. Riders more ex­pe­ri­enced than me had a job stay­ing on.”

But hav­ing been around the busi­ness for 20 years, he knew it would not be plain sail­ing. He said: “We get a lot of peo­ple rock­ing up to my sta­bles think­ing it’s the lo­cal rid­ing sta­ble and say­ing, ‘Can I have a sit on one?’And I think, ‘If you sat on one I’ll give you 10 sec­onds be­fore you’re in hos­pi­tal in a se­ri­ous con­di­tion’. Horses are not easy, race­horses are nigh-on im­pos­si­ble – they’re bred to do a job, fed to be full of life and if you’re in­ex­pe­ri­enced on the back of one you are in grave dan­ger of get­ting hurt.”

The best thing Das­combe did, it would ap­pear, is chuck Owen in the deep end on his first morn­ing. He put him on his quiet hunter in the trot­ting ring and had the head lad lead him round at the walk. Af­ter two laps the head lad started jog­ging and the horse started trot­ting.

“I bounced left, right feel­ing like I was go­ing to fall off over his shoul­der or out the back door at any mo­ment,” re­called Owen.

“I’d been go­ing 10 min­utes try­ing to get into the rhythm of a ris­ing trot, then all of a sud­den the whole string were in the ring with me.

“I was feel­ing rea­son­ably safe walk­ing when Tom told us all to trot on. So now I was on my own, the horse fol­low­ing the leader. Then Tom shouted, ‘Michael, lead them down to the gal­lop’ and I’m try­ing to steer this hunter down to the seven-fur­long marker.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been as ner­vous or as scared in my life. I’d rid­den for 15 min­utes, I’m about to get what­ever the horse wants to do and I don’t know what to do. I got on to the gal­lop. He got on to his back legs and I thought he was rear­ing but he was just thrust­ing to get some mo­men­tum. Then we’re can­ter­ing with me hold­ing on for dear life with 20 thor­ough­breds be­hind me and I’m think­ing, ‘If I come off here I’m in se­ri­ous bother’.

“By time I’d done four fur­longs I’d got some bal­ance and thought, ‘I’m not go­ing to fall off here’ and I started en­joy­ing the last three fur­longs. I breathed a huge sigh of re­lief. Though I’d pretty much been ly­ing across its back, I made it. I’d have hated to have seen what I looked like. Tired­ness wasn’t an is­sue but I ripped about five holes in my hands grip­ping the reins.”

The big­gest bar­rier to his im­prove­ment has been time. Owen has four chil­dren, runs five busi­nesses and does 90 broad­cast days a year. Add in the oc­ca­sional hol­i­day and that is not much time for rid­ing out.

“My big­gest worry will be can­ter­ing to the start and then con­trol­ling the horse for a flag start, when I know it will be revved,” he said. “I had a choice of two horses: Cho­sen Char­ac­ter, who’d give me a nice day out, or Calder Prince, who isn’t so easy but he’ll be more com­pet­i­tive. Tom says I shouldn’t just want to take part, his as­sis­tant says I should play safe, but I’m com­pet­i­tive.”

Das­combe is hop­ing to give him a “race­course gal­lop” on Calder Prince at Wolver­hamp­ton be­fore the big day. He has taken ad­vice from sta­ble jockey Richard Kingscote, and Ryan Moore gave him a les­son on a me­chan­i­cal horse, although the irony of that was not lost on Owen.

“Where do you start try­ing to coach some­one who hasn’t sat on a horse in 37-and-a-half years? I should have been down the lo­cal rid­ing school, not ask­ing Ryan for lessons,” he re­flected.

Should he not have sought ad­vice nearer to home, then? His el­dest daugh­ter, Gemma, is on the Bri­tish dres­sage team on her pony. “She’s only 14,” said Owen, “but even she said, ‘Dad, you know you can’t pol­ish a t--- don’t you?’”

Rid­ing out: For­mer Liver­pool striker Michael Owen takes to the gal­lops at his Manor House Sta­bles in Cheshire, where un­til now he has re­mained firmly out­side the rails

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