Donn's Articles » Sam Thomas

Sam Thomas

November 2007, Ruby Walsh dislocates his shoulder in a fall at Cheltenham, and Sam Thomas is thrust centre stage. It is a big ask for a youngster to take on the responsibility of partnering all the top Paul Nicholls horses in the top races, under the public and media telescope that comes as part of the deal, but it is a phenomenal opportunity as well. Thomas grasps it and puts up a Tony-winning performance.

The young Welshman may or may not have been fully ready last year, he may have been a little dazzled by the foot lights, but he got the results, he got Kauto Star home by a half a length from Exotic Dancer in the Betfair Chase. It wasn’t the best performance of Kauto’s life, it was the closest that Exotic Dancer had ever got to him in four attempts, but he won, and winning is what counts.

Buoyed by success, Thomas went out the very next day and gave Mr Pointment a horseman’s ride over the Grand National fences at Aintree to land the Becher Chase. The following week he rode the monster Denman with balls of steel in the Hennessy, allowing him stride on under his welter burden from early in the back straight, aggressive as you like, gradually turning the vice grip and squeezing every last pip of energy out of his rivals. And just to put the hat on it, he delivered Twist Magic’s potent turn of foot with impeccable timing the following week to land the Tingle Creek Chase.

That was a year and a day ago. Sam Thomas was 23. In just two weeks he had been catapulted into the limelight, if not quite from obscurity then at least from the periphery, the hottest young property in jump racing. David Fairclough becomes Kevin Keegan. In the blink of an eye Thomas was being compared to Walsh, different to Walsh, they said, but not that far off him in terms of ability. In January, with part-owner Harry Findlay wanting to get Gold Cup jockeys sorted early, and Ruby inevitably choosing Kauto Star, Thomas was confirmed as Denman’s rider for Cheltenham, with the result that he rode him to win the Aon Chase at Newbury in February while Ruby chased him home at binocular distance on the Donald McCain-trained Regal Heights. In March, Thomas and Denman won the Gold Cup. Dreamland.

One year on, different story. November 2008, Ruby gets injured at the Cheltenham November meeting again, just as he did last year. Uncanny. Ruptured spleen. Enter Sam Thomas, centre stage again, one year on, one year older, Gold Cup-winning jockey, with at least a couple of weeks’ worth of golden rides stretching in front of him. The ball hops differently, however, the results are different. In this results-driven business, lamentably, little else counts.

Kauto Star didn’t win the Betfair Chase this time. He might well have, had he not sprawled on landing over the final fence and shot Thomas out over his head. Some people said that the jockey should have stayed on, but that is being unreasonable. Mr Sticky wouldn’t have stayed on. It was just one of those things, but it wasn’t the start that Thomas wanted to this spell in the lead role.

Gwanako didn’t win the Grand Sefton Chase at Aintree the following day. Worse than that, Gwanako stopped dead at The Chair, right in front of the stands and the television cameras, and shot the hapless Thomas out over his head and over the fence. You can almost feel the thud yourself when you watch the episode unfold on the BBC’s super-slow-mo camera, as Thomas’s backside bounces twice on the landing side of the fence before coming to rest.

It got worse. Big Buck’s probably wouldn’t have won the Hennessy last Saturday, but he wasn’t a forlorn hope on the run to the last. He got the fence wrong, and landed awkwardly at the back of it. Thomas lost his balance momentarily, went to the buckly end, jousted with gravity, lost the battle, leaned sideways and came off, half out the back door, half out the side. It was the last thing that the jockey needed, the very worst possible outcome, at the final fence in the Hennessy, riding the favourite, right in front of the stands, precipitating the ignominy of a long walk up past the crowds, reduced from cavalry to mere foot soldier, mere infantry. Julian Wilson might have said that he would have been disappointed to have come off. Other pocket-talking commentators were not so kind.

Should Sam Thomas have stayed on Big Buck’s? Yes he should have. Of course he should have. Nine times out of ten, 99 times out of 100, he would have. He got this one wrong. In the horse racing business it is called a mistake. Richard Dunwoody was 21 when he allowed West Tip pop Becher’s Brook in the 1985 Grand National instead of asking him to jump out over it. The horse came down. The following year, second chance, Dunwoody went back and won the race on the same horse. Ruby Walsh was almost 21 when he got unseated off Rince Ri in the 2000 Gold Cup. It was an easy unseat, but it didn’t mean that he was any less of a jockey. The following month he won the Grand National on Papillon.

Mick Fitzgerald was 24 when he put Remittance Man, the best jumper of a fence in the country, on the floor in the 1994 Champion Chase, but there was never any question of not continuing to ride for Nicky Henderson, and he went and won the Cathcart Chase the following day for the trainer on Raymylette. Dettori got Swain wrong in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Kinane got Rock Of Gibraltar wrong in the Mile. The best riders in the world make mistakes on the biggest stages of them all, but this one by Thomas, apparently, was just too much.

“Sam is in a high pressure job,” Paul Nicholls said afterwards, “and I am in a high pressure position every weekend. It has to work out. I have my own opinion on what happened today, but I will keep it to myself until I’ve watched a replay when I get home. I’ll have more to say tomorrow.”

Perhaps it was just a knee-jerk reaction by Nicholls in the heat of defeat. It is easy to forget that he is under pressure as well, it is easy to think that the champion trainer is impenetrable. He isn’t. He has his bosses as well, his owners to placate. Remember, it’s a results business. Nicholls ran 17 horses at Newbury on Hennessy weekend, and had just one winner. That brings its own pressure to bear.

Take away a couple of high-powered owners from a trainer, the cornerstones that hold the entire building up, and see how he gets on. See how the institution that was Henry Cecil fared in the years immediately after Sheikh Mohammed took his horses away. The owners are the pegs that hold the tent in place, they provide the resource that enables the trainer go and buy good horses, keep good horses, and good horses get good results. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Without the owners, the canvass crumples very quickly, and Nicholls has always recognised that.

That said, his comments were not helpful to Thomas. The jockey may not have ridden to the trainer’s exact instructions on Big Buck’s, but it is rare that you can, and when you are low on confidence the last thing you need is a public kicking from your boss. In fairness to Nicholls, he was more circumspect the following day.

“I want to do what is right for Sam,” he said. “I’ve spoken to him this morning, and he is obviously a bit low because things haven’t been working out, but there is no possibility that he will be sacked. He is a lovely lad and a big part of the team.”

It is interesting that Nicholls sought advice from Alex Ferguson on whether or not Thomas should have ridden Master Minded in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown yesterday. What would Ferguson do if Ronaldo kept on hitting the crossbar and missing penalties? He wouldn’t tell Sky that it had to work out, that’s for sure. He wouldn’t say sacked or dropped, or that he’d have more to say tomorrow. And they were hardly penalty kicks that Thomas missed.

Three of the Racing Post’s experts were asked last weekend if Thomas should ride Master Minded. Paul Kealy, James Pyman and Matt Williams, all good racing judges, all with a thorough understanding of the sport, and all three said that he should. Two of Nicholls’s main owners, Andy Stewart and Harry Findlay, also came out in support of Thomas. It was perhaps significant that there was no sound from Clive Smith, owner of Kauto Star, Master Minded, and exciting novice chaser Free World. AP McCoy rode Master Minded and Free World at Sandown yesterday. Thomas went to Chepstow.

Perhaps the pressure did come from the owner, and that’s a tough one for the trainer. But when Daniel Wildenstein told Peter Walwyn to sack Pat Eddery in 1978, Walwyn stayed loyal to Eddery. He lost all Wildenstein’s horses as a result, but benefited hugely from a relationship of loyalty and mutual understanding with Eddery that lasted half a lifetime.

Nicholls said that the decision to put McCoy on Master Minded yesterday was the right decision for the whole team. Well, it wasn’t the right one for Sam Thomas. There is no question that the jockey’s best chance of regaining his confidence was to have been entrusted with the ride. Sure, there was a potential downside, but the potential upside was massive. Grade 1 win: confidence restored. I can. There was no upside for Thomas to his exile to Class 3 Chepstow.

The magnitude of a jockey’s success, like that of any sportsman, is in direct proportion to the extent of his self-belief. Hopefully Sam Thomas can recover from this entire episode, because it’s not certain that he can.

© The Sunday Times 7th December, 2008