Grand National 2022: Sam Waley-Cohen’s Fairytale Victory

Having announced earlier that week that the Grand National 2022 would be his last ever ride, Sam Waley-Cohen went on to make history: as the first ever amateur jockey to win both the Cheltenham Gold Cup AND the Aintree Grand National. 

After winning the Grand National 2022 on 50/1 chance Noble Yeats, he said: “It’s a dream! It won’t sink in for weeks – it feels like a fantasy, and I just don’t know what to say.  

“I’m beyond words. He ran for me. He couldn’t go the early pace, and I was trying to find pockets to give him a bit of space to run into, and I found myself up the inner and I was going more forward than I wanted to. 

“He loved seeing his fences, so I kept trying to find a spot where he could see them. If I asked him, he came, but if I just half-asked him, he wasn’t confident, so I was really trying to sit against him. 

“He likes the bit in his mouth and your legs on him, so I was just trying to get him in that nice rhythm, and he just ran. As soon as I asked him, he went. 

“Jumping the last, I thought, ‘I’ve gone too early!’ I really didn’t want to get there then, [because] at Cheltenham I was struggling to stay with them all the time. But when I pulled him out and asked him, he gave me way more than I expected, so half when I went for him, I thought he’s got plenty – I know he’s got plenty of toe, so as soon as he picked up, I thought, ‘he’s gone – he’s got this’. 

“It’s ridiculous.”

Noble Yeats is owned by Waley-Cohen’s father Robert, and paying tribute to him and his late brother Thomas, he continued:

“I have to say thanks to Dad – he’s supported me unwaveringly, lovingly, when others said put someone else on. We’ve had a partnership, we haven’t had one cross word – it’s only been for fun.  

“We came here thinking, well, you know, the sun’s out, it’s my last ride, go and have a nice day with no instructions, no expectations, just enjoy. Today Liverpool comes out, Liverpool shows its love, and honestly, you feel like you travel on goodwill at this place. 

“You just feel a wave of support and goodwill. These days are big family days, and obviously Thomas isn’t with us, so you always think about him on these days. I still always ride with his initials on my saddle, and these are family days.”

Comparing his ride on Noble Yeats to his previously best result in the National, second on Oscar Time in 2011, Waley-Cohen said: 

“I was travelling too well – I just kept trying to fill him up and take my time, and in a way he got there too early, but when he got there he came alive, so I thought, well, you’d better go now. It’s amazing. 

“When I rode Oscar Time I was on fumes all the way, there was nothing, whereas with him he kept finding and kept going. When the other horse came to me, I was, like, come on! And he picked him.” 

Reflecting on his career and decision to retire after the race he said:

“I always wanted to go out on a high, and I thought Thursday was going to be that high. It doesn’t get better than this, and that’s it now – out! 

“You need a lot of luck (over these fences), and you need to be on the right horses, and I think, relatively, I’ve ridden these fences a lot more than some of the other jockeys, and experience does help.  

“Honestly, I think it’s luck. If you are on the right horse, and things go right for you, or don’t go wrong for you… 

“This could literally be a moment that I wake up from. It really couldn’t be better. 

“One of my earliest memories is of trying to ride the Grand National on the rocking horse we have at home, just knowing a few of the horses’ names and remembering them.  

“We used to come here as kids and there was an ice cream stall where you could get free tasters, and we’d be up and down every race getting free tasters, so it’s been part of my childhood, and what’s probably kept me trying to ride year after year after year is trying to come back and have a feeling like that. 

“I turn 40 next Friday. I’ve always wanted to ride for the love of it, and one of the reasons I wanted to stop now is because I’ve always felt when you don’t want to go every day and you don’t enjoy every race, wherever you come, you should stop, and the days when you don’t want to go travel three hours for a small race, no matter where you come, it’s time to stop – that’s it. Busy family, busy work – enough. That’s it. 

“Thinking about doing this again is fool’s gold – I’ve made up my mind, I’ve had the dream ride, and what a way to go out.”

Noble Yeats became the first ever seven-year-old horse to win the Grand National, and reflecting on that Waley-Cohen said: 

“I’ve always believed… but I could barely hope. I never really bought the seven-year-old story – I thought a seven-year-old could win, because not many seven-year-olds run in it, so there aren’t many stats, but you can talk yourself into anything when you’re sitting on a seven-year-old.  

“I’ve only really sat on him three times – once at Emmett’s [Mullins, trainer], once at Cheltenham and once today. I learnt a lot about him at Cheltenham, and I think without that ride at Cheltenham I wouldn’t have had that ride today. 

“We were looking for a horse – we were going to run Jett, but he wasn’t going to stay the trip. We’d gone up to Wetherby for a hunter chase and we saw Noble Yeats run, and thought, ‘that’s an interesting one, and he’s qualified for the National now – I wonder if they might be interested in doing something’.  

“We went and spoke to Emmett, and really liked him – he’s a great trainer – and we thought, ‘why not? Let’s have a crack at it’, and one thing led to another.  

“I’ve been so lucky with all the horses I’ve ridden, and in a way, all those rides build up to today; you keep learning, experience, background – if I hadn’t had those days where things haven’t gone right, I wouldn’t have had today.” 

In a separate interview just after crossing the line he told ITV Racing:

 “It’s a dream. I can’t believe it. I’ve got to say thank yous, because it’s my last ever ride. To Dad, for unwavering belief and love over 23 years – never a cross word, nothing but a dream. It has been a love affair. To my wife, long-suffering! They aren’t all good days. There are bad days in this sport. She’s always there to support me….  

“This is beyond words. It’s a fairytale, it’s a fantasy, and I’m just full of love, and happiness and gratefulness.” 

Robert Waley-Cohen, who owns Noble Yeats and is Sam’s father, told ITV Racing:

“It’s absolutely a dream come true – I can’t speak, I’ve shouted too much! Just fabulous. You can’t go without the horse, but the horse can’t go without the jockey, so it’s a team and thank God it’s really worked. My cup runneth over.” 

Asked to sum up his son’s talent, he said: “Dedication, hard work. He only rides about 30 races, apart from point-to-points, in the year, and his record is unspeakably good. I’m really emotional. 

“It’s fantastic, that is what we dreamed about for years. Sam used to ride a rocking horse, pretending he was riding Auntie Dot. That’s how far back it goes.”  

He added: “It is what dreams are made of. This is it, and you sort of think, ‘last ride ever, 40 years old next Friday, and won so many great races’ – we’ve had such fun.” 

Asked to sum up his own feelings about it being his son’s final ever ride, he added: “Joy and sadness that it’s all coming to an end. And the horse is only seven and a novice, so he could be here for a good many years yet, but not with Sam on board.  

“I had horses between my retiring and his starting, and I shall have them again.  

“It’s an amazing story and Sam has been dreaming of winning this ever since he used to ride Auntie Dot on his rocking horse, trained by John Webber, when he was a little kid. So this really is the fulfilment of a life-long dream.” 

Trainer Emmet Mullins was celebrating winning the race at the first attempt. He said: 

“We were probably more confident a month ago but the closer we got to it everyone else kept talking up their chances and we just went cold but the horse never knew any different. 

“It was our form behind Ahoy Senor, a Grade One winner yesterday, that made us confident as the form was franked and the form was all there. 

“He won a bumper 14 months ago. It has been a quick journey but he has taken everything in his stride. Luckily I don’t read too much and I was never too worried about his inexperience. 

“I know he only finished second in his point-to-point, but the way he galloped to the line he was just relentless. He has a few little issues but the more we tried to help him with hoods and things I think we hindered him. The more simpler we left him the better.

“He is a novice that probably could have gone a Graded route but we chose not to and we chose to get experience in things like the Paddy Power and over two miles over handicap chases over fences as well and I’d say that has all stood him in good stead today.  

“That meant he probably wasn’t exposed as much as the others. We thought a bit up our sleeves but it is never until you do it you find out.  

“When it crossed the line my heart was doing 10 to a dozen but it has calmed down now. It just hasn’t hit me yet I suppose! 

“I didn’t get to see much of him the first lap. Going out on the second circuit he had a brilliant position and I had to take a breath myself saying that is a position we can win from. 

“Everything went straightforward. Crossing the Melling Road he had a lovely position and he took a pull and was able to follow them around into the straight. That was the second blow I took!  

“I never had any worried about his stamina and everything went right on the day he was always going to gallop to the line. 

“It was great for them to put their trust into me. For anyone to buy a Grand National horse it takes a huge amount of trust and it was brilliant we were able to repay them.” 

In a press conference later, he referred to Noble Yeats being his first Grand National runner and laughed: “It’s a great start and it’s going to be hard to keep this strike rate up!  

“Everything was perfect in the build-up and I said to Sam last night looking back that there was nothing I wanted to change and I had no regrets. 

“I was happy with the horse and didn’t have any last minute changes of heart so it all just seemed to come together. To be fair after me and Sam spoke after Cheltenham he said he didn’t travel and jump great early doors – which got him into trouble – so we put cheekpieces on just to help him jump and travel and get into that position today.  

“We didn’t really talk about tactics, I gave him as much advice as I could before the race as he’s a funny character of a horse but the rest was all down to Sam. 

“You probably wouldn’t believe me but I’d say it was around 21st March [when we first thought about the Grand National for Noble Yeats], when he won a three mile maiden hurdle at Navan. He was always going to be a staying chaser and he picked up an injury that day. We decided that we’d take him down the handicap route for a big pot and avoid the Graded races this season as a novice chaser. Stats are there to be broken – so his age wasn’t a worry.” 

Speaking in a post-race press conference at Aintree, Sam Waley-Cohen confirmed his career in the saddle is now over. 

He said: “It’s over and out for me now and I’ve said for ages actually that if I win the Grand National I would retire there and then and give my dad my boots in the winners’ enclosure. 

“I gave him my hat actually and my boots are still on but I think when you have a ride that like and it goes as well as that, you have to stick to what you said. 

“I didn’t get the start I wanted and he just found it all happening way too fast. I just tried to fill him with confidence and find a bit of space to let him get into a rhythm. It wasn’t where I wanted to be but when he started going forward he just started picking horses off and I got a great line up the inner and he just started cutting through the pack.  

“I thought ‘fine, I’ll just keep going’ as I was meant to be there and he was just slowly running himself into that position. He worked himself into it.  

“It was only after the finish line (that I started to believe I’d won the Grand National). I could feel the other horse [Any Second Now] and I didn’t know what was coming from behind so we just kept going forward. 

“When I rode him at Cheltenham I couldn’t get him to travel as I wanted to and at the top of the hill I pulled him out and gave him space and asked him to go forward and he really picked up for me and got into the race. 

“I said to Emmet after that I was really surprised he had that in him as I just couldn’t get him to travel in his race. Once he got space and I asked him I was half hoping he had that kind of finish up his sleeve and he really did, he really found.” 

Waley-Cohen has a remarkable record over the Grand National fences, with the only race to elude him during his career being the Grand Sefton. 

He laughed: “I was second in the Sefton, so that will do! It’s been a magic course for me.” 

He went on: “Aintree is a place that has always captured my imagination. I think Auntie Dot ran in a red hat with white polka dots on and I think dad got me the silk cap colours so I used to pony around in that, so riding in the National has always been a bit of a fantasy.  

“Since point-to-pointing my ambition would have been to have had a ride in a Cheltenham Festival race and maybe one day have a ride in the Foxhunters [at Aintree] – it certainly wasn’t to ride in the Grand National! The connection goes back but sat here I can’t really say I had a masterplan to do this, one thing led us to another thing which led us to another thing.  

“I’ll be an ex-jockey now but I’ve got a busy work life. Portman Dentalcare have got nearly 250 practices in five countries and 4,000 staff working for us, so it keeps me out of trouble! Monday morning I’ll be back on my Teams calls and my Zoom calls working away and continuing with life as it was before.  

“Of course I’ll miss this but I love horses and racing has been about the partnerships with horses and enjoying the horses. I rode out this morning on one of our homebreds because I just love horses, so they will be a big part of my life going forward and I just love bringing the young horses through.  

“I’ve had a really good idea though because I think Emmet could take his license back out and go and ride Noble Yeats next year – that can be the masterplan! 

Asked who he would want to play him in the Hollywood movie, he joked: “Somebody incredibly handsome! People say I look a bit like Dominic West, so he’s my natural doppelganger! 

On losing his late brother, Thomas Waley-Cohen, Sam added: “I think when you lose somebody you love and you lose them when you’re young, you realise to make the most of life and to appreciate it and to try and approach things with an open heart and a lot of spirit.  

“I just try to put a lot of energy into every day because you don’t know if it’s going to be your last day or whatever it is. It’s definitely made me want to make the most of the opportunities and thanks to that I’ve had incredible opportunities and tried to make the most of the ones that I’ve had presented.” 

Sam’s father Robert Waley-Cohen added: “I’m wearing a wristband with Thomas’ initials on and that was woven by my wife and contains not only our racing colours but also Long Run’s tail. We’ve done that quite a lot so thank heavens it keeps growing back!” 

Long Run, photo courtesy of Ian Yates

Rare Career

Waley-Cohen has proven to be a rarity in elite sport as an amateur amongst professionals, winning the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup on Long Run and boasting a fabulous record over Aintree’s Grand National course.  

Prior to the 2022 National, the jockey had completed the Grand National course five times from nine attempts in the big race itself, placing on three occasions and he revealed that it was his ride on Jett in 2021’s race which persuaded him to hold back on a retirement which he had been considering for some time.  

The 39 year old said: “It’s my 23rd year of riding and I’ve always felt like you’ve got to keep learning in whatever you’re doing and you’ve got to keep hungry and it’s as much about enjoying riding out and the days where you’re riding one that’s not going to win as much as it is riding on the big days.  

“I started to wonder whether I really wanted to travel for three hours on a Sunday to ride one I didn’t think had much chance – and when those thoughts start to creep into your mind it really triggered it for me, as I’m either all in or all out.”

Prior to the big race Waley-Cohen announced that he would retire from racing following the 2022 Grand National, regardless of the result – but always optimistic: 

“It just sort of came together to bow out here today really. I probably thought about it last year, but I had so much fun on Jett that I wanted one more go! I’ve been pondering it for the season and I really focus my seasons towards Cheltenham and Aintree – just because I’ve got a few other things going on too.  

“I loved Cheltenham and my 20th year of riding at The Festival when my ambition was always to have just one ride there so I felt like I’d experienced everything I wanted to. 

“I thought I’d maybe slipped them at one stage on Jett and he just gave me such a good bounce around, it’s his fault that I’m still here this year!  

“The Grand National and the fences have been a bit of a love affair for me, I love the people of Liverpool and the atmosphere here and I get such a kick out of riding the fences. 

“My boyhood fantasy really was to ride in the Grand National, which was an impossible dream for an amateur. One of my earliest memories is pretending to ride in the National so to actually ride in it and to have to chance to line up and say goodbye to everyone at the course I love is certainly fulfilling that dream. 

“This will be my 10th spin in the National and I think I’ve ridden the course about 40 times in all, so I’ve had an amazing time.  

“It will be weird seeing those silks [those of his father Robert Waley-Cohen] without me riding, but I’ve always done it with Dad and we’ve been a real partnership. We’ve had so much fun doing it together and we’ll carry on doing it together. 

“You can’t get a thrill like being here today and of course I’ll miss that, but all good things come to an end.” 

The amateur rider has won on no less than six (other) occasions over the unique Grand National fences – a record which started with back-to-back victories in the Foxhunters’ Chase with Katarino in 2005 and 2006.  

Waley-Cohen’s best effort in the Grand National itself (pre 2022 result!) came when second on Oscar Time in 2011 and when asked for the secret behind his success, he felt his background in point-to-point riding had helped. 

He said: “There’s no secret other than being on the right horse, but clearly it’s one of those courses where if you can get yourself in a rhythm and get your horse travelling and happy, you can have a brilliant time. 

“The only other thing I’ve thought besides that is that point to pointing is a brilliant training ground for the National, because people often don’t keep as straight as they do under Rules and there are more horses going in different directions – so it’s a good way to learn about survival! 

“The National is such a big event, everyone in the weighing room believes they’ve got a chance and are excited. The crowd and the atmosphere and the buzz is electric and the horses pick up on that, not every horse will handle the situation.  

“There’s just so much luck involved, the first five fences are just a case of giving your heart to Lady Luck and hope you get carried along with fair sails. That aspect is very different and it’s not always as tactical as other races and then there’s the length of the race and the challenge of it – every fence is a challenge, and it goes on and on. I’ve always thought that a horse and jockey need to become one out there and I think that sums up the race. 

“Katarino was literally a family horse, I was still at school when he was running in the Triumph Hurdle and had never ridden in a point to point. To come here and ride him here [in the 2005 Foxhunters Chase] was a terrifying realisation of a dream and he was such a good horse and gave me such a good day – so it was a great moment for the whole family really.” 

Waley-Cohen reached the very top despite his amateur status, culminating with an outstanding victory in the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup with Long Run, defeating no less than two jump racing greats in Kauto Star and Denman. 

And when asked to reflect on those victories, he said: “It’s amazing. Obviously you’ve got to have the right horses and you’ve got to be very committed but one of the great things is that you’re welcomed and the weighing room welcomes you.  

“Lots of people training and participating have had amateur backgrounds so it’s the lifeblood of the sport. One of the great things about racing is that you’re all equal once you’re at the start and at the finish the winner is the winner – and it doesn’t matter who you are or your background or profession. The winner is the winner and that’s it.  

“You’re not just turning up and having a go on the day! There’s a lot of expectation on yourself with things like doing your preparation on the horses and getting yourself fit and I often think turning up at the races with your mind in the right place – that’s the first challenge for a jockey. 

“Winning the Gold Cup on Long Run was an overwhelming wave of happiness and relief, for the horse and everyone.  

“There was a lot of expectation and there’s a lot of pressure riding in those kind of races, and that makes you more of a sportsperson than a jockey – you have to handle the pressure and handle the good and the bad. To cross the line in front was a moment of real relief and release.  

“The way he jumped the last two fences, you could ride the course 1,000 times and not get a horse to hit them on those strides. He was fast and low and all out and it was probably half way up the run-in where I was thinking they’re not coming back to me, which was an incredible second of time and realisation.” 

Though when asked to pinpoint his favourite day in the saddle, he leaned towards Aintree. He explained: “I think sometimes the really unexpected days were the best, Katarino and Liberthine in the early days when it was so unexpected and winning was turning up.  

“To go on and win those races early on was just beyond belief but every day you have a winner is your next favourite day and if I can win today that would definitely be my favourite day.  

“I’ve been very lucky though, I’ve had around 75 winners and four were at the Cheltenham Festival and six were at this Festival. I’ve been lucky enough to win Felthams and King Georges and bet365s so the winners I’ve had relative to the number of winners I’ve had have beaten any hope I could have had. It’s been unbelievable and you can’t really make it up.” 

Waley-Cohen partnered the Emmett Mullins-trained Noble Yeats for his final ride in the saddle and when asked to sum up his chances before the race he commented: “People are saying he’s seven which means he’s got no chance but not many seven year olds have run in this and there’s not many data points on it.  

“Clearly it would be better if he had more experience, but the race is different to what it was when I started riding and while he’s plenty to do it wouldn’t be a total surprise if he could do it. My first job today is to get him down to the start calm and collected because he can get a bit excited. 

“I would love to come back into the winners’ enclosure to say goodbye. Fairytales don’t usually happen though so I would love to just have a great run round with him.” 

Well this time the fairytale came true.

Additional reporting by Nick Seddon.

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