When Sam Twiston-Davies signed up to be number one jockey to Paul Nicholls, jump racing was not short of doubters. The previous chap had lasted just one season and now here was this bashful lad taking on the most high-pressured job in the game, trying to impress a trainer who expects his jockeys to match him for effort and excellence. It’d never last, people said.
Three years later, Twiston-Davies carries himself with increasing assurance. There have been good times and bad times, of course, but he has not let either distract him for long and has shown a resilience that some onlookers clearly did not anticipate. His strike-rate continues to improve from one winter to the next. He belongs in the role.
Having just turned 25, he is still a young man but this is his 10th season with a licence and there is a veteran’s insouciance in his manner as he emerges from Fontwell’s changing room clad only in towels and settles down for a relaxed chat about his story so far. He starts by admitting to a certain amount of awe at where he now finds himself.
“To be in the position I’m in now, it’s a dream come true,” he says. “Ruby Walsh is obviously a phenomenal jockey we all look up to, and he was riding for champion trainer Paul Nicholls for all those years.
“Well, hang on, I’m a young lad just starting out. If I’m going to be riding for him, that’s going to be a miracle!”
His first ride for Nicholls was such a significant event that he recalls every detail seven years later. It was a day when the trainer’s main focus was on Kauto Star winning at Down Royal. Meanwhile at Wincanton, Harry Skelton took a heavy fall and was stood down, missing the ride on Niche Market in the Badger Ales Chase.
Twiston-Davies, a 3lb claimer, was getting dressed to go home after his only booked ride when he was stunned to get the call-up.
“I was rushing around, getting saddles and stuff, and off we went.” Niche Market fell at halfway but a stablemate, Meanus Dandy, won, so the trainer presumably enjoyed the day, even if the promising young rider he hired failed to make an immediate mark.
On owners’ days I used to be very shy and hang right back and talk to the people I knew. This year was the first time I walked into the yard with real confidence and went around and spoke to everyone
Rather better days have followed, including wins in the Tingle Creek and the Champion Chase with Dodging Bullets and back-to-back Scottish Nationals with Vicente. Nicholls has been champion at the end of two of their three seasons together and their shared success has helped the jockey to feel more secure in his position.
“On owners’ days, I used to be very shy and hang right back and talk to the people I knew. It was probably the first time this year that I walked into the yard with real confidence and went around and spoke to them all. You become more confident in general life as well as in the racing bubble.”
Losing days are also easier to deal with, now that the pair have some history behind them. Anyone near Chepstow’s unsaddling area after the Persian War in October might have picked up clues that Nicholls was not entirely happy about the ride given to Amour De Nuit, who finished second after travelling strongly for most of the way.
Happiness, however, was quickly restored when the pair made it to the winner’s enclosure twice that afternoon.
“Me and Paul, I think, are stronger this season than previous [seasons],” says Twiston-Davies, alluding to their relationship rather than the horses available to them.
“Although we had 170 winners last season, we still had our ups and downs, January was quiet. I think we’ve learned to deal with the good days and the bad days as a team.”
After a painful defeat, the jockey “might leave it be for a little bit” before making contact to discuss it further, or might choose the right moment to phone.
“I know how to manage the days when things don’t go quite so right,” he says. “Because obviously it’s racing, we’re not always going to have winners every day. You learn how to deal with each other and I hope now, going into this season, we’re in a better place than ever.
“All trainers you ride for are crazy about winning, but Paul is so enthusiastic about it, he re-watches the races and thinks, ‘Right, what can we do with him the next day?’
“And if the horse isn’t any good, he’s thinking, ‘What can we get to replace him?’ He never rests – he’s always wanting to improve. ‘The gallops, make them deeper. Go faster. Go slower. School this way. Do it this way.’ He’s so competitive. That’s why he’s so good.
“Also, his owners are very competitive, hence the reason why you always have to be on your A game.”
Twiston-Davies was evidently disappointed to be passed over for the ride on the chasing prospect Emerging Talent recently but concedes: “You have to keep riding to your best ability because we’ve got a lot of good lads coming through.
“Sean Bowen is excellent, Harry Cobden, Bryony Frost and then we’ve got Henry Morshead, who has come down from Kim Bailey’s, Alexander Thorne has come down from up north, we’ve got Nick Scholfield there. So many solid jockeys.”
That quantity of talent behind you, poised to pinch your rides, must generate a lot of extra pressure?
“Yes and no, because you work together as a team,” he answers. “You talk each one through. If I’ve ridden something and the others haven’t… it’s a good working relationship.”
There are stable jockeys in Britain who would pin their colleagues against a wall and threaten violence rather than willingly give up the ride on a valued animal but Twiston-Davies is not of that ilk.
Everyone has peaks and troughs. As long as you’re doing your best for the yard and you’re not losing out massively, then you’re always going to get chances and winners. It’s about keeping your head and believing in yourself
“Everyone has peaks and troughs,” he says. “I think, as long as you’re doing your best for the yard and you’re not losing out massively, then, in a big yard like that, you’re always going to get chances and winners. It’s about keeping your head and believing in yourself.”
That self-belief was challenged a couple of years ago, when Twiston-Davies was unseated on the Flat twice in three days, leading to speculation that he would have to change his riding style to reduce his vigorous lower-leg movement.
In the end, he says: “I didn’t change anything too drastically. I worked on my fitness and just tried to become tighter in the saddle.
“The trouble is, I’d ridden for a good few years before that and to change something that’s quite noticeable in your riding is very hard. You can’t make a massive change. You just have to be tighter on a horse.
“I’d probably become a bit loose. Luckily things have hopefully moved on. Everyone has one they wish they hadn’t fallen off, something that jinks. Every now and again gravity takes over.”
Among the most testing days came when Big Buck’s returned to the track after a tendon injury and the great horse was beaten in the Cleeve Hurdle, ending an 18-race unbeaten run.
Any jockey, getting on him for the first time in such circumstances, was on a hiding to nothing.
Twiston-Davies was blamed by some for being too aggressive in his tactics, though he was supported by Nicholls and the horse’s owner, Andy Stewart.
“Paul had said it was fine, it was one of those circumstances, he’d got tired, that’s how he was ridden and he enjoyed being ridden,” says the rider.
“But I turned my phone on and saw these massive amounts of strong opinions. That was the day I developed a second skin and was able to kind of toughen up to the racing game.”
Zarkandar’s defeat in the 2014 Long Walk Hurdle was the other low moment Twiston-Davies immediately recalls, when his mount hit the last and got dragged into a duel with the insuperably tough Reve De Sivola.
“Those were the two days I’ve learnt masses from,” he admits.
“It’s how to conduct yourself when things don’t go quite so right. You don’t go in, throwing your toys out of the pram, you sit yourself down and think, ‘Right, I won’t make those mistakes again’.
“Hopefully now I’m in a position where I go out and ride with a clear mind and don’t worry about making mistakes.”
Surely you never threw your toys anywhere, Sam? With a broad grin he replies: “There have been a few occasions. There was actually one time in the summer, it was Worcester and I’d given one of Dr Newland’s probably not the finest ride.
“I don’t know why, I saw red and I kicked the wall. An hour later, my foot was awfully sore and I was regretting it very much. I learned a lesson there!
“I’ve learned loads and there’s still a lot more to learn. I was very lucky in that I started young, with point-to-pointing and riding for mum and dad. I was never thrown in the deep end, I was able to learn from each ride, each race.”
Twiston-Davies is, of course, the son of Nigel, a Gold Cup- and Grand National-winning trainer based in Naunton, east of Cheltenham, where the jockey grew up with his younger brother Willy.
“When we were kids, you’d be running around when mum and dad were working,” he says. “Those were the days when we weren’t massive, we had a select, friendly team, so mum and dad were still working hard.”
It seems to have been an instructive, hugely enjoyable upbringing, if unorthodox and mildly chaotic.
“Some of the stories, Nige would have been thrown in prison,” says his son. “We’d have Friday nights with dad after school had finished. And that was always Nige’s pub night, so we’d go down to The Hollow Bottom in the car and have an Appletise, some coke and some pork scratchings.
“He’d always steal a load of horse duvets from the yard and lie them down in the back of the car – me and Willie were put in the back of the car to go to bed.
“We’d watch a DVD for half an hour and fall asleep in the back of the car, still having a great time. And obviously one of the Hollow staff then would drive him and all of us home and we’d be back in bed before you know it. That was our Friday nights.”
Twiston-Davies was nine and his brother seven when their father won the National with Bindaree in 2002.
The two boys were sat on a high ledge outside The Hollow Bottom to watch the victory parade the next day. “I remember Willy falling off the ledge onto the sun lounger and into the flower pots,” recalls his brother.
“Everyone was running around after Willy while Bindaree was parading up and down the road. Luckily, Willy was all right. It was probably the one fall that he was able to take well!”
This is a mischievous reference to the frequent bone breaks that afflicted the younger Twiston-Davies as a jump jockey and sent him towards a career on the Flat, where his main problem became his weight.
They dream of one day taking over the yard, with Sam training the horses and Willy charming the owners.
“Me and Willy, it’s quite embarrassing, really, because I’m 25, Willy’s 23 and yet we live at home and share a bedroom,” says Sam.
“We spend a lot of time together. I had seven weeks off [with an injury in 2016] and I spent nearly every day with Willy, whether it was going shooting with dad or trips to London and seeing things I’d never really done before. He kind of educated me. If you ever do need a bit of a picking-up, Willy’s always there.”
My first goal would be to get to 1,000 winners. I’m somewhere in the 800s now. Just keep working hard, keep enjoying it, won’t really change much, hopefully
When it comes to hopes for the remainder of his career, Twiston-Davies says he would be happy to maintain the status quo. “Hopefully keep riding for Paul Nicholls, dad and Dr Newland,” he says. “That’d be great. Three great bases to work from, three massively enthusiastic trainers.
“My first goal would be to get to 1,000 winners. I’m somewhere in the 800s now. Just keep working hard, keep enjoying it, won’t really change much, hopefully.”
There is no mention of the jockeys’ title, which seems again in Richard Johnson’s grasp barring injury.
But Johnson is older by 15 years and Twiston-Davies will, along with his friend Aidan Coleman, be among those who can hope to scrap over the title when a vacancy arises.
In the meantime, he says: “I’m spoilt rotten to do something I love doing and not have to worry about food and stuff too much. I’ve got one ride tomorrow doing 11st 7lb but I’ll go out tonight, we’ll have some steak and chips and enjoy ourselves.”