Harry looks to be the new prince among jump jockeys
Nick Townsend talks to Harry Cobden about life as Paul Nicholls’ top jockey at the age of 20
Harry Cobden dismounted from Topofthegame at Newbury this week, enthused by the efficient jumping of one of Paul Nicholls’ hopes for the season ahead. The classy hurdler who went down by a head in this year’s Coral Cup at Cheltenham Festival but with a chasing career planned, is among horses who have been working in preparation for next week’s Ladbrokes Winter Carnival at the course.
Cobden knows better than most there are many more highlyregarded charges like this morning’s mount back at Nicholls’ Manor Farm Stables, at Ditcheat from which, over the years, have emerged the mighty Denman, Kauto Star, Master Minded and many more illustrious performers trained by the ten-times champion.
And as the stable’s No.1 rider, Cobden will partner the best of them.
They include Clan Des Obeaux, “an exciting horse”, says Cobden. Part-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson, the six-year-old contests today’s Grade 1 Betfair Chase at Haydock – although victory will be a demanding quest for the Nicholls horse.
As for Topofthegame, he had fallen when travelling well on his chasing debut at Newbury a year ago and reverted successfully to hurdling. The six-year-old will reappear in a novice chase, probably next weekend. “He’s shown a lot of ability over hurdles,” says Cobden who schooled him over ten obstacles on his Newbury outing. “If he shows that ability over fences, too, he’ll be a smashing individual.”
Cobden’s services are also in regular demand by Colin Tizzard, whose Kilbricken Storm gave the rider his first Cheltenham Festival victor in the Grade 1 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, which confirms the esteem in which his horsemanship is held. And what opportunities abound for the 20year-old. Nicholls trains more than 150 horses, Tizzard has over 100.
And yet, just a couple of years ago, he was fourth on the Ditcheat roster of riders, behind Sam Twiston-Davies, Nick Scholfield and Sean Bowen. It was presumed he’d have to move on to further his career. Not this character. Earlier this year, the 2016-17 champion conditional rider, who last season amassed 76 wins, became Nicholls’ first jockey –then still aged only 19 – with all the rich equine pickings that status implies.
You suggest to Cobden that he must wake some days and pinch himself – although you doubt whether he could find any loose flesh to do so. Tall and lean, he does 10st, but weight ensured there was never any chance of him following the man he most admires in the other code, Frankie Dettori, into the Flat arena.
Cobden is the antithesis of the exuberant Italian. He feels no need to talk up his talent, preferring to attribute his rise to “plenty of luck” though, similar to Dettori, he is unbowed by the pressure of riding the country’s best horses.
“I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been riding plenty of nice horses,” he says. “Mr Nicholls put me up on plenty of good ones when I was a claimer, and as I got down to my 3lb claim Mr Tizzard started using me quite a lot. It’s been right place, right time really.”
His current win rate in one in every three rides. “Any day you ride winners is brilliant; any day you go racing is a good day. It’s nice to be associated with very good yards, nice genuine people who have decent horses.”
Yet, he is acutely aware that in this code, the capacity for triumph and potential tragedy walk hand in hand. At Market Rasen in June, he broke his neck and described himself as “lucky to be walking around”. He had walked away from the incident, but underwent a scan and it was later discovered he had fractured his G2 vertebrae.
Cobden, who returned to the saddle last month, reflects: “It was certainly a bit of a wake-up call.” He adds: “It was a really soft fall. I’ve had horrible falls in the past, and you get up and walk away. You have a little tumble like that, you land a bit funny, and something like that happens. It was one of those things – something you can’t worry about in this sport.”
Cobden hails from a farming family at Lydford-on-Fosse, in Somerset. His parents William and Sarah, helped out by his brother James, have a beef herd. Cobden says it’s a life he may well have gone into if his riding talent hadn’t intervened.
“I’ve always been quite keen on farming, but for the moment the horses pay better,” he explains with a wry smile. In his spare time, Cobden is keen on hunting and shooting.
It was a family connection with trainer Ron Hodges that proved the catalyst to Cobden’s careermove. “My grandparents were good friends of Ron and (his wife) Mandy. I was about eight, and Ron found out I rode. He said ‘Oh, I’ll come down and see you ride one day’. Next day, he came down and saw me ride a pony round a field. He said ‘I’ll get you a racing pony’. He and my father bought me one, and it went from there.”
He adds: “I progressed from pony racing to point-to-pointing and then National Hunt. I started riding out for Mr Nicholls when I was 13 in the summer holidays, half-terms.”
His first significant winner arrived when he had just turned 17, with Old Guard securing the Grade 3 Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Cobden has since won four Grade 1s. “Pretty special,” he agrees, adding that “Diego Du Charmil (in a Grade 1 novice chase at Cheltenham Festival) and Kilbricken Storm, gave me the biggest buzz, together with Ultragold in consecutive Tophams (at Aintree). That was unbelievable.”
To win a Cheltenham Gold Cup is his prime ambition; a prize the jockey whose feats he would surely like to emulate, Ruby Walsh, achieved on Nicholls’ Kauto Star in 2007 and 2009.
This very morning, it had been reported that Walsh’s form had come under scrutiny, the 39-yearold Irishman having lost on six favourites in his last eleven rides.
“But to my mind, he’s still the best,” maintains Cobden.
In these times, defeat on a favourite invariably incurs online wrath. “I don’t listen to what anyone says,” he insists. “I don’t listen to any of that rubbish on social media where people try to put you down.”
Wise sentiments, and as Walsh observes of the career of any jockey: “When you’re winning, you’re a hero. When you're losing, you’re a villain.” Young Cobden is learning swiftly that No.1 means you are also a prime target. His riding suggests any criticism will be rare. And his demeanour suggests he can handle it.
“Any day you ride winners is brilliant; any day you go racing is a good day. It’s nice to be asociated with genuine people with decent horses”
Festival success: Kilbricken Storm, left, gave Cobden his first Cheltenham winner in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle
Great future: Harry Cobden