The Telegraph of London described the result of the 2022 Grand National at the weekend as “one to swell the heart, not the wallet”.
Not the wallet because winner Noble Yeats started as a 50-1 outsider and the bookmakers cleaned up. It’s reckoned that one in four people in Britain and Ireland have a flutter on the National, so the pencil men hit the jackpot big time.
And it was a heart-warmer for the story of his jockey, Sam Waley-Cohen, the first amateur rider in 30 years to win Britain’s most famous horse race. And it was his final race before retiring from the saddle.
It is certainly no rags-to-riches story, more like the other way around. For the Waley-Cohens are what the Brits call “toffs” – rich, upper-crust, well-connected. Sam’s father is a horse breeder and his ancestors include a Lord Mayor of London, the founder of Shell oil company, theatre luminaries and university professors.
The 39-year-old is good friends with Prince William and Kate and is credited with being the person who got the couple back together after they’d broken up, back in the day. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge tweeted their congratulations after Saturday’s amazing victory.
Waley-Cohen doesn’t need to ride horses for money; he does it for pure love of the sport and the animals, getting down and dirty with the working classes in the dark and dangerous world of jumps racing.
His time jumping over fences might sound like an elite dalliance, but it has been a lot more than that, He has been rated one of the best jockeys in the world, with all the great professionals – such as Tony McCoy and Ruby Walsh – singing the praises of his riding talent. Coming into the National, he was the most successful current rider at Aintree, with six wins from 41 rides.
And he has won other big races around the country, most notably the Cheltenham Gold Cup – the blue riband of steeplechasing – on Long Run in 2011. He has even been second in the Grand National.
Waley-Cohen is also an enormously successful businessman. After studying at Edinburgh University, he worked as a commodities trader in London before starting his own dental-care business in 2004, Portman Clinics, building it up from nothing to a 160-clinic empire employing thousands of people across Europe in the space of 18 years.
He is married with three children – taking up a bit more of his time. His appearances on the racecourses became less and less frequent, but when he pitched up everyone commented on his amazing physical fitness for a part-timer – not to mention his exceptional skills as a horseman.
He announced before the National that the perilous four-and-a-half-mile circuit around Liverpool’s Aintree racecourse aboard Noble Yeats would be his last ride.
What a way to retire: On the youngest horse to win the great race since 1940 (seven years old), which is owned by his father and trained by one of the youngest trainers in Ireland, Emmet Mullins.
The poignant part of the story is the initials TWC engraved on Sam’s racing saddle – in memory of his younger brother Tom who died at age 20 in 2004 after a long battle with cancer. Immediately after Saturday’s victory, while still on Noble Yeats’s back, Sam told the TV interviewer: “Tom was with us every step of the way – as he has been with me in every race!”
It’s said that the Grand National always conjures up a tale of magic – like in 2021 with Rachael Blackmore becoming the first female to win the race. Someone commented that while that milestone was a first of many, Sam Waley-Cohen’s feat was a throwback to a forgotten age of protean amateurism.
The film scriptwriters are already scrabbling at their keyboards.