Nico de Boinville: “I used to sleep at public school to watch the races” | Cheltenham Day

Ohen Nico de Boinville was at Berkshire state boarding school, while Best Mate won three gold cups in succession at the Cheltenham Festival between 2002 and 2004, he dropped out of class in an early sign of his obsession with horse racing. “I definitely escaped a few lessons to watch Best Mate,” he says. “That’s when Cheltenham came on my radar because before that I was heavily into flat racing.”

The 32-year-old jockey, who is England racing’s best hope of challenging the dominance of the annual Irish invasion at Cheltenham next week, laughs when asked if he would have been joined by other rebellious public schoolchildren during his illicit festival. . “Not at all. No one else got agitated. It was all football and I was the only one watching the race.

On Wednesday, De Boinville rides the imperious Shishkin in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, which promises to be the most compelling race of the week. Shishkin’s victory over Energumene, from Willie Mullins’ mighty Irish yard, lit up Ascot in January and the rapid resumption of their rivalry is a tantalizing prospect. De Boinville is on Constitution Hill in the Festival’s opening race on Tuesday, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and he once again has an exceptional horse on which to try to stem the tide of Irish winners.

But it is fascinating to hear about De Boinville’s unlikely journey into racing and how, with his privileged background and very different from most of his peers, he established himself as a top English jockey. His mother and father, who was an insurance broker, pushed him to continue his education and De Boinville accepted a place to study politics and history at Newcastle University. These interests remain and help explain why we cover so many topics, including Ukrainian history and Vladimir Putin’s mentality while De Boinville’s intelligence shines. But he realized almost instantly that college was a pale imitation of a bustling racing life and dropped out after six weeks.

“I knew straight away, as soon as I walked in, that it wasn’t going to last long,” he says. “It was a bit of a shame because I’m sure if it was a condensed course I would have really enjoyed it. It just seemed very tense.

Were his parents willing to give him time to establish himself in the race? “Absolutely. The deadlines were set by myself. I said, ‘You have until 25 to see what you can do.’ I am very realistic even now.

De Boinville’s limited experience in working with racehorses had been gained during his sabbatical year in France. “I wanted to improve my French and I spent time with Richard Gibson [an English trainer based in France]. It was a fantastic springboard and it taught me a lot.

Nicky Henderson agreed to take De Boinville to his Seven Barrows yard, but it was a modest position. “I was the fourth amateur rider because there was a crowd of young aspiring jockeys and we all started out as stable staff trying to progress. It was very competitive and we tried to learn from Barry [Geraghty] and PA [McCoy], who rode for Nicky. I kept my mouth shut and just watched and learned. As you progressed you could start asking questions, but at first they wouldn’t look twice at an amateur Mr Posh de Boinville.

Nico de Boinville near trainer Nicky Henderson’s Seven Barrows yard in Lambourn. De Boinville began working with Henderson after dropping out of Newcastle University. Photography: Sam Frost/The Observer

De Boinville struggled and between May 2009 and April 2012 he had two winners in 30 races. ” It was hard. I had never raced ponies and had no real experience in a big yard like Seven Barrows. David Bass [now his close friend] arrived at the same time and had made 200 point-to-point trips.

At the age of 22, De Boinville postponed his leave with the intention of returning to France. “I was in the dumps and quite ready to go back to France and try there.”

Henderson, an old Etonian, is even more chic than De Boinville. But he saw something else in the riding and the pure character of the former public schoolboy. He refuses to accept the departure of De Boinville and, little by little, the opportunities present themselves. He rode Cheltenham in 2012 and won his first Festival winner on Whisper in the Coral Cup in 2014. A year later his life was transformed when he won the Gold Cup on Coneygee, a novice hunter from a small shipyard formed by Mark Bradstock. .

“I only lost my claim [under the handicapping rules that favour apprentice jockeys] the previous month, so it was a fantastic story. I owe Mark and Sara so much [Bradstock] because a lot of people were pushing them not to keep me on the horse for the Gold Cup. They put a lot of confidence in me and what a pleasure to go and race a novice in the Gold Cup. I’m not sure this will happen again. I had a couple more stabs at the Gold Cup and I know how hard it is to win.

De Boinville pauses when I ask how difficult it was to get accepted into the uncompromising and often insular weigh-in room. “When I started with Richard Gibson, he said to me: ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak French. If you know how to speak the language of horses, you will go far. That’s how it is in our sport. If you know how to ride, people respect you. You just have to get along with people and I like to think I do and I’m pretty open and honest. It also helped that I never felt type.

How does he feel about the weigh room culture now – especially after Bryony Frost was bullied by Robbie Dunne? “It has progressed enormously and some jockeys are pushing that forward. Obviously, over the past two years, we’ve had issues that needed to be addressed. But we’re all doing our best to make sure we’ve learned from those mistakes.

“At the end of the day, it’s about being nice and accepting our colleagues. But at the same time, we are in a dangerous elite sport and there will be flare-ups. But we will come to a point where we can handle these situations properly – with open and honest discussion.

The lawyer representing Dunne in the bullying court said he was defended by senior jockeys including De Boinville and Richard Johnson. Was it? “Some of us in the weigh room tried to work through these issues before they got so out of hand that they became public knowledge,” De Boinville says. “Both of them wanted to talk to me. I gave my opinion to Bryony and Robbie. All I advised was to have an open and honest discussion. It wasn’t supposed to be, but I still get along with Robbie and Bryony.

Does Frost feel welcome in the weigh-in room again? “She went through a very difficult time and maybe she felt like an outsider. But from what I’ve observed over the past few months, she felt much more involved again. from the weighing room.

“There will be fights and we don’t all need to get along. We are our own independent businesses, so it doesn’t have to be one big happy family. But we have to respect our fellow jockeys and make sure we can ride horseshoes and be safe with them.

De Boinville could ride iron to iron alongside Paul Townend, his Irish contemporary, when Shishkin and Energumene face off in the Champion Chase. Her face lights up at the memory of their fight at Ascot.

“If there’s a lot of hype, like at Ascot, you hope you put in your best performance and produce something special, because it’s very rare for two horses to meet at their peak. That’s what has got people excited because they are two outstanding racehorses who put in incredible performances, and I felt incredibly privileged to be a part of it, let alone win it.

Shishkin made two small mistakes before getting the win. “It probably looked a lot worse than when I was on him because we were going so fast on that hill. But Shishkin can still get something out of the bag when he’s on the back foot. He certainly did when we won the Supreme [at the 2020 Festival]. We were almost eliminated and he found a way to come back and win. It was very similar to Ascot and when you get that feeling of a crowd it’s very rare. The only other time I can think of the crowd engaging so deeply with a racehorse was when Sprinter Sacre won at Cheltenham in October he came back [from a heart problem in 2015].”

Nico de Boinville rode Shishkin to victory at the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase last December.
Nico de Boinville rode Shishkin to victory at the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase last December. Photograph: Steven Paston/PA

De Boinville was the works driver for Sprinter Sacre before becoming his race jockey and they won the Champion Chase together in 2016. How do Sprinter and Shishkin compare? “Sprinter was a flamboyant showboater. He was your Naseem Hamed while Shiskhin is not so flash. But he has incredible talent.

De Boinville peppered our conversation with references to boxing. “I really love boxing. They’re not that different, boxers and jockeys. We put everything in place so everyone can see it and there’s no hiding.

It doesn’t take long before De Boinville returns to discuss Ukraine. “Returning to his story is very, very interesting and I read Putin’s speech before it all started. What he believes is interesting in itself. But then to see what they did was absolutely devastating – women, children and journalists were shot. It’s crazy but then you see world champion boxers like [Vasiliy] Lomachenko and [Oleksandr] Usyk fighting in the Ukrainian army – also with the Klitschko brothers. It’s humbling to see Usyk, who has a massive title defense [against Anthony Joshua], and he quit all of his training to go home and fight. Surprising.”

Does he miss the more intellectual side of life he might have had as a history and politics graduate? De Boinville smiled. “You would be surprised because we have these discussions in the weigh-in room. There are a lot of very smart jockeys and we exchange ideas. There’s enough to keep you intellectually stimulated.

During the heat and fervor of Cheltenham there will be little room for historical or political debate. But is De Boinville, the supreme runner, optimistic that he will bring home at least two big winners next week at Shishkin and Constitution Hill? “Well,” he said, “I’m going to use that classic cliche. I’ll only take one. It’s such a competitive environment, and there are so many good horses, jockeys and trainers. It will be a privilege to ride with just one winner next week.

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