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Cheltenham Gold Cup jockey Harry Cobden: I chatted football with Fergie … I didn’t understand it

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Harry Cobden
 Harry Cobden: ‘I’ve met Sir Alex Ferguson three or four times – he’s a lovely man’. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Harry Cobden is lucky. At the age of 20 he will ride Clan Des Obeaux, the joint-second favourite, in his first Gold Cup on Friday. He will also enter the Cheltenham Festival, which starts on Tuesday, as the 10-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls’s stable jockey in one of the most coveted positions in racing. Clan Des Obeaux is part-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson and Cobden tells some amusing stories about hanging out with Fergie even though, as he cheerfully admits, he knows nothing about football. Just days before the biggest week of his life, Cobden also knows he is far luckier for a different reason.

On 1 June last year, while racing at Market Rasen, Cobden fell off a horse called Mick Thonic and broke his neck. It was a severe break and, if it had occurred a few millimetres to either side, he could have been paralysed and unable to walk. “That’s right,” he says with a relieved smile on a grey day at Newbury racetrack. “It was a bit worrying because, as one consultant said, ‘You might not be able to ever ride again.’ It was a proper fracture straight through my C2 vertebra after I got unseated at the last and whiplashed off the ground. It was a tingle to start with but when your adrenaline calms down, everything starts to go rigid. It was a lot more serious than I thought.”

Did he suffer terrible pain? “Not at all,” Cobden says breezily. “The more falls you have, the more you cope with pain. When I was 16 it hurt every time I hit the deck. Pain’s all in the mind. Now I just try to brush it off, and get on with it.”

Cobden sounds like a typical jockey – brushing off a broken neck as if it is comparable to a pesky cold. Yet how long did he endure the bleak prognosis that he might never ride again? “A week, maybe. It worried me a little but I was fairly positive. I was more interested in getting out of hospital. And I was very fortunate to be all right. I had four months out and it wasn’t that bad. I had a great summer and I didn’t really follow the racing. It was the best way to deal with it – just like it’s definitely the best way not to think about the dangers. If I thought about falling off, I wouldn’t be in the right job.”

Cheltenham is more dangerous than most tracks and at last year’s Festival seven horses died. “There are more runners and it’s very competitive,” Cobden concedes. “You go very fast and that’s why there are more fallers. Last year didn’t look good to the public. But jockeys get upset when there are fatalities. We don’t treat them like machines. We love them and they’re really well looked after.

Jockeys get upset when there are fatalities. We don’t treat horses like machines. We love them

“It’s obviously terrible to lose a horse you’re racing. It’s happened to me once – three years ago at Cheltenham. It was on the day I won the Greatwood Hurdle on Old Guard [in November 2015]. Looking back, I was clueless. I didn’t know what was going on. I thought I did, but I was hanging on for dear life. Pointed it in the right direction, followed everyone else and won. Two races later, in the last of the day, the conditional jockeys’ race, my horse broke its leg galloping. It was horrible. But the vets are very quick and dealt with it brilliantly.”

Cobden brightens again when we turn to Clan Des Obeaux and the Gold Cup. “He’s a very good horse and we know each other well. I’m hoping there won’t be any dramas and he will come back safe and sound.”Advertisement

Does he believe Clan Des Obeuax, who is favoured by some to beat Presenting Percy, can win? “Yeah. I’ve got a massive chance. I wouldn’t get off my horse to ride any other at the moment. I quite like Native River [who won the race last year]. He’s a little under par this year but, if the ground goes soft, he’s also got a massive chance.

“I’ve been told we’re getting some rain and so he’ll definitely grind it up from the front, and take a lot of passing. But I don’t sit at home and think I’m going to win the Gold Cup. It might be different the night before – but I haven’t got flustered over it so far, even if it’s the best race of the year. The National can throw up an odd winner that wouldn’t even get to the start of the Gold Cup. This one counts most.”

Cobden and Clan Des Obeaux won the King George on Boxing Day in imperious style. “He was so dominant,” Cobden says. “He travelled well, jumped beautifully, and that was the best race I’ve won in a scorching gallop. But Cheltenham is massively different. You get downhill and uphill fences, you’re always on the turn. You need a real champion to win round there.”

Harry Cobden and Clan Des Obeaux (right) clear the last to win the Betfair Denman Steeple Chase from Terrefort and Nico de Boinville at Ascot last month.
 Harry Cobden and Clan Des Obeaux (right) clear the last to win the Betfair Denman Steeple Chase from Terrefort and Nico de Boinville at Ascot last month. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

A serial champion owns a share in the horse, too. “He’s a lovely man,” Cobden says. “I’ve met him three or four times. He’s inspirational and the sort of person you could listen to all day. I went to Old Trafford because of him last month.”

Is Cobden a Manchester United fan? “No. I’m not a big football fan. I know nothing about football but it was a great experience as it was the first game I’ve ever been to. It was Man U v PSG and we went to Sir Alex’s box afterwards and chatted about the football. I didn’t really understand it. He said things which totally went over my head. I still loved listening to him and the PSG supporters were crazy. It was pretty fantastic.”

Cobden does not think much about football as his work for Nicholls is so demanding. The Ditcheat trainer’s yard is in fine form and Cobden has some excellent horses this week. Yet ever since the brilliant Ruby Walshrelinquished his position to concentrate on racing in Ireland, other jockeys have struggled as Nicholls’s retained jockey. Daryl Jacob did not last long and Sam Twiston-Davies claims to be a happier and better person since he gave up the job last year.

Even more than the good fortune in riding for Nicholls, there is sustained expectation. “Obviously there’s pressure riding for Paul and you have to perform,” Cobden agrees. “But as long as I’ve done the best I can, I’m happy.”

Does he think about getting fired? “You never know what’s round the corner and no one’s ever got a safe job. It could happen one day, couldn’t it? It will happen one day. But hopefully not in the near future. We all look back to Ruby. He’s different class and an inspiration to me growing up. He won all the big races and he’s amazing.”

Thankfully I didn’t get too big. I’m 5ft 10in now and they say you stop growing at 20. Hopefully they’re right

Twiston-Davies is also an excellent jockey but the pressure wore him down. “He did the right thing for him and I get on very well with Sam. We’ve always been good friends, and if he’s ridden a horse I’m riding, or vice versa, we help each other. He still rides a few for Paul.”

It must be more complicated riding alongside Bryony Frost, another gifted young jockey, at Nicholls’s yard? “As in?” Cobden asks, looking briefly defensive.

The pair used to be a couple and Frost has received far more attention than Cobden – even though he is Nicholls’s retained jockey. “Yeah, I was seeing her a bit. She’s great for racing, because she’s always passionate, isn’t she? The cameras like it, the press like it. There were certain things in the paper but the press likes to make a story out of it. I still get on really well with Bryony. We’re going up to Kelso together tomorrow. To make Ditcheat the best team, everyone’s got to get on.”

Attention this week will focus on the racing and, after having “my first winner at the Festival last year on Kilbricken Storm, who was a 33-1 outsider [in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle]”, Cobden is optimistic about his other rides. “Give Me A Copper in the Ultima Handicap [on Tuesday] has a massive chance and Topofthegame also has a huge chance in the RSA [Alliance Chase on Wednesday]. He’s a very big, raw horse but he’s getting straightforward to race. It’s a hard race to win but I like his chances. I’ve also got Quel Destin in [Friday’s] Triumph Hurdle. He’s a very hardy little horse – that could win.”

Cobden is also fortunate that, despite being taller than most jockeys, warnings he would grow too much have not materialised. “I wanted to be a jockey when I was 12 and got into pony racing. People told me my feet were too big and I’d grow too much. ‘Don’t get your hopes up, boy’, and all that. Thankfully I didn’t get too big. I’m 5ft 10in now and they say you stop growing at 20. Hopefully they’re right.

“I’m not very disciplined when it comes to diet. Last night I had a roast dinner and I had a fry-up this morning. But over the last two weeks I’ve had 50 rides. I also walk around the track every day and take the dogs out when I get back. As long as I do that I can have nice food sometimes.”

While Cobden’s ultimate ambition is to become champion jockey, he is close to fulfilling his immediate target of riding 100 winners this season. “I broke my neck after 30 days and missed four months so it looked unrealistic. But I’m up to [96] winners so it’s looking pretty good.”

Cobden grins when asked about the prospect of winning a few more this week, including the Gold Cup. “That would be a fairytale, wouldn’t it? I’ll definitely feel very lucky if it happens.”

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