The Grand National is the one race every jockey wants to win during their riding days, but that is much easier said than done — just ask four-time British jump racing Champion Jockey Richard Johnson, who rode in the National 21 times during his lengthy career but never landed a victory in the marathon race.
However, for Sam Waley-Cohen that dream became a reality in the 2022 renewal of the National earlier this month. The amateur jockey mounted massive outsider Noble Yeats for the last ever ride of his career, and he rather fittingly rode the horse — owned by his father Robert — to glory at Aintree.
Written off in the horse racing betting odds prior to the race, with most ‘tipsters’ claiming the seven-year-old had little to no chance in the gruelling, four-mile outing, the 50/1 shot disputed the lead two out before being ridden hard by Waley-Cohen on the run-in to beat Any Second Now, who set off as the race favourite, by just over two lengths.
It truly was a fairy-tale ending to a glittering career for the 39-year-old, who runs his own £300 million dentistry business by day. The win was redolent to something you’d see in the movies.
The Waley-Cohen family only purchased the horse in February, with Sam’s first ride in the saddle coming at last month’s Cheltenham Festival — an uninspiring ninth-place finish in the Grade 3 Ultima Handicap Chase on the opening day.
Then, in the build-up to the big race, the part-time jockey announced that the National would be his last. Even with some massive victories on his CV, Waley-Cohen slipped under the radar as few would have expected the stars to align for the amateur rider in the manner in which they did. Yet, there he was at the front of the field, driving Noble Yeats over the line after a hard-thought battle with Any Second Now.
It was by no means a fluke though. In fact, Waley-Cohen and trainer Emmet Mullins, who is the nephew of nine-time Cheltenham Festival Leading Trainer Willie Mullins, devised a cunning plan that seemed to work perfectly for the handler, jockey and horse.
“Emmet and I talked quite a lot after Cheltenham,” Waley-Cohen said. “The tunnel out to the course can be a bit of a mind-blower, so we thought we’d get him out early and keep him away from the other horses. Emmet did a lot of thinking around getting him to the start in the way that we wanted him to be.
“He picked up almost too well at the second-last, I would have loved to have done that at the last, but he travelled and he was galloping.
“Then the other horse came to him and that helped him, and from Cheltenham I knew that he kept a little bit up his sleeve. As soon as I asked him to go forward he went forward and I started to think: ‘I think he’s going to keep his head in front here.’”
With a Gold Cup, two King George VI Chases, all in the saddle of Long Run, and now a Grand National under his belt, Waley-Cohen could go down in history as the best amateur jockey ever!