Life rolls out before him, many fences still to jump, but he remembers that single, fleeting moment at Cheltenham in March as the drawing of a cork from a bottle laid down through years of doubt and hope, frustration and endeavour. “I’ve got this horse nagging me all the while, at my girths, trying to take me on,” Nico de Boinville remembers. “Paddy Mullins, I think it was. But when we turn down the hill for the first time, Coneygree comes hard on the bridle. So I think, ‘Wow. Okay. Something could happen here’.”
And, of course, it did. With the shared audacity of newcomers to centre stage, Coneygree and his jockey sustained a rhythm of jumping and galloping too relentless for the most accomplished steeplechasers in the business. Not that de Boinville can yet be sure, sitting in a Cotswold coffee shop eight months later, quite where the path he struck that day may be leading.
The first novice to win the Gold Cup in 40 years looked eligible for prolonged stardom when producing another dynamic exhibition on his reappearance, only to prove as vulnerable as the next horse to niggles and setbacks. Yet Coneygree’s late defection from the Hennessy Gold Cup served only to heighten a sense that his jockey, in just his second year as a professional, has himself only just begun: having lost the services of one Gold Cup winner, he was promptly booked to ride another in Bobs Worth. While his new mount never got involved, de Boinville could only take heart from this latest vote of confidence from his boss, Nicky Henderson, only a couple of weeks after being entrusted with Sprinter Sacre himself in his comeback race at Cheltenham.
To an extent, some of these opportunities register the domino effect of Tony McCoy’s retirement, his retainer for JP McManus having since been taken over by Barry Geraghty, previously stable jockey at Seven Barrows. But they also reflect the increasing maturity, as a race rider, of a born horseman – and the singular character soldering these twin functions together.
At 26, hair lank and receding, de Boinville neither looks nor thinks like a greenhorn: his manner intent but contained, his conversation fluent but considered. There is an appealing lack of glibness about him, a flinty distaste for flattery and flannel. In his younger days, however, these bas-relief merits had yet to be carved through a deep grain of reticence. Even now, de Boinville remains something of a loner, his friendships valued more for depth than number. As such, he has long counted himself among those whose natural empathy with horses both reinforces and relieves a solitary streak.
When I was young I was very shy, very introverted, and horses were my release
“It’s the same thing you hear touted all the time,” he says. “People who are happiest on a horse. That’s when they feel their easiest, at their most confident. Put them in a group of people, and maybe that slightly disintegrates. That time with the horse, for them, is their relaxation time; that’s when they are at ease.
“When I was young I was very shy, very introverted, and horses were my release. I was put on a horse before I could walk – literally – and that was the easiest thing for me. The thing I felt was mine, was unique to my little world.”
As such, it might seem tempting to review the turning point in his life as a retreat to his comfort zone. Having excelled at Bradfield, de Boinville embarked on a course in history and politics at Newcastle – and lasted just six weeks. While he concedes himself to have come home “a bit of a mess,” his disaffection was far more focused than tends to be the case in university drop-outs. He knew his true vocation, and its pursuit demanded far more perseverance than he managed within academic life.
“I just had this burning desire to fulfil a dream,” he shrugs. “I’d had that very typical middle-class upbringing, where the consensus is that you do your A-Levels, you go to university, you get a job. So I was really breaking a mould. There was a lot riding on it. But I’ve always been fairly independent. I respect my parents absolutely, but sometimes I know I just have to do things. I just needed to sort myself out, work out where I was going. I suppose that was in my character, to make my decision and stick by it. But you could look at it either way. Perhaps I was just being a brat.”
Not that anyone at home could be too surprised by the turn of events. De Boinville’s mother had herself made the national dressage squad, while her sister rode at Badminton and married the trainer, Pat Chamings. The latter’s stable is on the doorstep of the family home in Hampshire and de Boinville, nine when he won a novice class at the Horse of the Year Show, was galloping thoroughbreds by the time he was 14. “That’s just the boy in me,” he grins. “There’s only so long you can go round a dressage ring or a show ring before you start needing a bit more of a thrill.”
He had, moreover, sampled the elixir of race-riding during a gap year as pupil assistant to Richard Gibson in Chantilly. (Returning, in the process, to the land of his fathers: the de Boinvilles fled across the Channel during the French Revolution.) Mind you, his career could hardly have got off to a less auspicious start: his first mount, in an amateurs’ Flat race at Fontainebleau, threw back its head leaving the gate and de Boinville returned with blood pouring from his nose and his silks scarlet. However, the horse had finished second and awakened a craving that was never going to be satisfied sitting behind a desk.
After a few months restoring his bearings around the horses at home, de Boinville was itching to put his ambitions to the test. He presented himself at Seven Barrows as a grafter with an amateur licence, and had only been there three or four months when paired with another new arrival. “He just turned up, as they do,” de Boinville says. “And you just don’t know. That’s the thing about Nicky’s – you’re inundated with nice horses the whole time.
“I was there with the mucksack on my back, working away and keeping my head down. And he was just one of those horses you got on and thought, ‘Yeah, this is all right, nice horse.’ He was a bit backward looking, back then. I remember the first time I rode him, he wouldn’t pick his feet up. Rather annoyed me…”
They called me a morning glory – I could ride in the morning but not in the afternoon
The blossoming of Sprinter Sacre proved both an inspiration and a frustration to his rider. De Boinville was heartened that Henderson was happy to keep him on the emerging champion, both on the gallops and in schooling. On the other hand, his boss indulged him with just 25 rides – four of them winners – in the three seasons culminating in Sprinter Sacre’s runaway success under Geraghty in the 2012 Champion Chase.
“They called me a morning glory,” de Boinville says wryly. “I could ride in the morning but not in the afternoon. When you’re working in a racing yard, and it’s cold and wet, it can feel like it’s taking forever to get somewhere. What kept me going was being able to go off point-to-pointing every weekend. That was great experience: you can do stuff away from the spotlight, any mistakes you make won’t be picked up everywhere, and you can start to work things out for yourself.”
Then, three years ago this month, de Boinville won a handicap hurdle at the Tingle Creek meeting on Petit Robin. Among those to notice were Mark and Sarah Bradstock, who wanted a claimer for Carruthers on Boxing Day. “I was very lucky to ride those two horses when I did,” de Boinville says. “They both knew a lot more about the game than I did. They pretty much put you in the right place at the right time, and you could develop a blueprint that really helped when it came to riding the novices and so on. In the same way, schooling those good horses at home definitely helped to instil confidence. Bang, bang, bang: it all just works like clockwork, they’re doing everything right. The best riders are confident in their own ability – and that’s what an F1 car like Sprinter Sacre can do for you, a horse so very sensitive, with that absolute presence.”
With Coneygree, you know you’re jumping fast but you don’t actually feel as though you’re going that quick
After 13 winners that season, de Boinville doubled his tally in 2013-14 – and even rode a winner at the Festival: Whisper, in the Coral Cup. The slow burn was beginning to spark. Nobody, of course, could have predicted the detonation that followed last winter. Yet it is surely no coincidence that this understated, serious man should have developed such an affinity with animals as charismatic as Sprinter Sacre and Coneygree. For all the differences between the pair, both seem able to express themselves through their trust in a rider who has no competing, extrovert agenda he wants to impose on a situation.
“With Coneygree, everything happens probably a lot quicker than you know it,” de Boinville explains. “He’s not an extravagant horse. You know you’re jumping fast, but you don’t actually feel as though you’re going that quick. With Sprinter, you just keep winding him up, and things keep happening. Coneygree just jumps so economically and is so quick away from his fences. The Bradstocks do put in an awful lot of work on that kind of thing.”
That is something worth stressing to any of those slicker, brasher trainers who may find themselves bemused by the Bradstocks’ homespun success. Few among them, certainly, would even have considered running such an inexperienced chaser in the Gold Cup; and none, you suspect, have shown such fidelity to the suspended de Boinville after Richard Johnson rode Coneygree in his trial. But the fact is that de Boinville was able to address the critical moment in the Gold Cup with supreme confidence, specifically because of the Bradstocks’ professionalism.
It came at exactly the same point, a circuit on, where Coneygree had first flushed his rider with optimism by grabbing hold of the bridle. “I turned at the top of the hill and he did it again,” de Boinville remembers. “He’s back on it. So I just thought, ‘Well, let’s wing this third last and see where we are then.’ The thing was that the Bradstocks had built a downhill fence at home to prepare him for that very moment. And, as a result, I knew I could send him down to it and that he’d ping it. How many trainers would have done something like that? It worked for the horse, and for me as well: I knew he’d make lengths going into it.”
Just over an hour later, de Boinville was riding in the Martin Pipe Hurdle, confined to conditional riders. The young man who had once seemed in too much of a hurry had somehow overtaken himself. Now, of course, he faces new challenges of consolidation and composure. Things will go wrong, as he has already seen this winter: Coneygree’s problems at home, and his own bruising fall at the same Tingle Creek meeting where he once made his key breakthrough. On the other hand, de Boinville was riding there as a top-ten rider who had already scaled the next rung on the ladder with the rejuvenation of Sprinter Sacre.
Sprinter Sacre’s reception was like the Gold Cup. That’s why I’m in the game, when you get down to it: for that feeling out there
It was only the second time de Boinville had ridden him in public and the experience was so gratifying, so sufficient unto itself, that it seems churlish to wonder what else may yet remain within the horse’s compass. “The reception he got, it was like the Gold Cup,” de Boinville says. “At the open ditch at the top, when he’s jumped past Mr Mole, and then the change in gear down the hill – I just thought to myself, ‘My God, I’m having a lot of fun here.’ He was brimming with confidence again. That’s why I’m in the game, when you get down to it: for that feeling out there.”
Yet these transports, and his craving for more, do not seem to encroach on the hinterland that sustains de Boinville.
“I’ve got a few friends outside the game who are very good at making me realise there’s a world out there,” he says. “I had dinner the other day with a great mate from school, who’s now working for UNICEF on the Syrian border. Now that really does open your eyes. He’s seen an awful lot of bad stuff.
“It is amazing what racing can do to you. It can make you very self-absorbed, and self-centred I suppose. Yes, I know it can be a brutal profession. You can soon go out of fashion. But putting yourself under pressure will only make you tense, stress you out.
“Keeping things simple works best for me. I can’t deal with things so well if it’s all too intense. I know I won’t ride at my best if I put myself under that pressure. That said, I am very hungry. Those moments you get in the big races, those feelings, are very hard to replicate – but they are seriously addictive.”