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Sam Ewing

Sam Ewing hadn’t ridden Stellar Story in a race before Friday, but he knew him well all right.

“I had ridden him a bit at home,” says the young rider now. “I’d schooled him a bit. I’d always loved him. He gives you a lovely feel. Big horse, loads of scope.”

He didn’t know until late that Stellar Story was going to run in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival on Friday. Actually, it wasn’t until just before declaration time on Wednesday morning that trainer Gordon Elliott decided to confirm the Gigginstown House horse for the race, and it wasn’t until later that morning that Sam Ewing knew that he would be riding him.

“I was delighted to get on him,” says the rider. “He was an outsider, but I thought that the trip (three miles) was ideal. I thought he’d stay and I knew that he would love the ground. I hoped that he would go well.”

Stellar Story went well early on all right. He settled into his racing rhythm just behind the leader The Jukebox Man, and he relaxed. They didn’t go a great pace through the early throes of the race and Stellar Story was always in his comfort zone, travelling away and jumping, in the slipstream of the leader, conserving energy.

“The plan was just to jump off handy and see where he landed. He travelled everywhere, I was always happy with where I was. I moved up on the outside of Kielan (Woods, riding the leader) on the run down the hill and we winged the second last.”

But The Jukebox Man repelled his challenge, retained the lead and kicked off the home turn. At the final flight, Stellar Story and Sam Ewing were fully four lengths behind the leader, but the rider still held onto a glimmer of hope.

“Honestly, I thought that I was going to finish second in the race again, but I knew that he’d keep on going up the hill. He came out of my hands at the last, so I knew then that he had energy left. He has so much scope, he can jump from anywhere. Then I saw Kielan’s lad running around a bit in front, and I thought that we had a chance. About half way up the run-in, I thought that we might get there.”

He kept his horse’s momentum up and, slowly and inexorably, they closed the gap. Six strides from the winning line, Stellar Story still had a length to find on the leader. Five strides later he was level. One more and he was up, a head in front when he hit the winning line.

“I thought that we just had our head in front,” says Sam, “but I wasn’t sure. Then I looked up at the big screen and they were showing the finish. Danny Mullins was the first one to slap me on the back and say well done. Then they announced it.”

First number 14.

“It was some feeling. A Cheltenham Festival winner. It was unbelievable. It still is to be honest. A Grade 1 winner. And coming back into the winner’s enclosure with everybody there. It was unreal. And it was great to ride a Cheltenham winner in the Gigginstown colours, for Michael and Eddie (O’Leary). They’ve given me so many opportunities. And for Gordon (Elliott). I couldn’t thank them enough.”

Sam Ewing’s first ride at Cheltenham was also for Gordon Elliott, Tronador in the Coral Cup at the 2022 Festival. That was on the Wednesday, he was home to ride at Down Royal on the Thursday, and then back to Cheltenham on the Friday to ride The Goffer in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. He didn’t trouble the Cheltenham judge that year, but it was all good experience.

Last year he went close, he rode the 150/1 shot Affordale Fury for Noel Meade in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle, and he finished second, beaten a length by Stay Away Fay. It was brilliant to get so close, but also gutting. To get so close. Then, on the final day of last year’s Cheltenham Festival, he got the call up to ride Conflated in the Gold Cup and, unfazed by the event and the occasion, he finished third behind Galopin Des Champs and Bravemansgame.

“That was a great experience. It was some thrill to be riding in a Gold Cup. And Conflated ran a massive race. When you get so close though, you just want to go back and ride a winner there. That’s why I got such a thrill out of Friday, as good a thrill as I’ve ever had in racing.”

It was always horses and racing for Sam Ewing. Son of top point-to-point handler Warren Ewing – well known as the man who, in partnership with Barry Geraghty, first spotted the talent possessed by a foal who would subsequently be named Constitution Hill – he rode over 120 winners on the pony racing circuit before he took out his apprentices’ licence and started riding on the flat with Ger Lyons.

“I learned lots at Ger’s,” he says, “but I always wanted to be a National Hunt jockey. Then I started to get a little bit heavy so it was an easy decision. I was delighted to go jumping. I was sick of the sweating and the wasting. I was lucky too that I grew up in a point-to-point yard, I’d always be annoying my dad, asking him if I could school the horses.”

His has been with Gordon Elliott since then.

“Gordon has been great to me, the opportunities that he has given me. I couldn’t thank him enough.”

It hasn’t all been plain sailing mind you. A week after Cheltenham last year, just when his career was gaining momentum, he broke his arm. He was back in time for the Galway Festival in July, rode three winners there, momentum up again, then he had another fall and broke his leg. They’re made of stern stuff. All he wanted to do was get back riding.

This season has been a season of ups. In November, he won his first Grade 3 race on Whats Up Darling at Navan. Earlier this month, he won his first Grade 2 race on Ash Tree Meadow back at Navan. And now, a first Grade 1 winner, a first Cheltenham Festival winner. Some feeling.

© The Sunday Times, 17th March 2024