RIDING high on the moorland above the historic racing town of Middleham, the last snow of winter disappearing over the horizon, Joe Colliver and his horse of a lifetime, Just Cameron, are a picture of concentration.
As he soaks up the view from his elevated vantage point, his thoughts turn to Wednesday’s Queen Mother Champion Chase when the best riders and horses from Britain and Ireland race for one of steeplechasing’s most sought-after prizes.
The equine line-up will be formidable – former champions Sprinter Sacre, still regarded as the best chaser since Arkle, and Sire De Grugy; defending champion Dodging Bullets; rising star Un De Sceaux and the gallant Somersby, who will be appearing at an eighth successive Cheltenham Festival.
Likewise the riders competing in this iconic blue riband race for two-mile steeplechasers – Un De Sceaux’s rider is the peerless Ruby Walsh, who already has a record 45 Festival wins to his name while Barry Geraghty, so long associated with Sprinter Sacre, is on the 33 mark.
Then there is Sheffield-born Colliver, the 24-year-old graduate of Northern Racing College whose career tally of winners – 65 and counting following three wins this week – does not even match Walsh and Geraghty’s combined success at jump racing’s Olympics.
Yet this understated rider is unfazed by the challenge that will await him when he leaves the sanctuary of the hallowed Cheltenham weighing room and battles his way through the packed paddock to mount Just Cameron.
A standard-bearer for trainer Micky Hammond’s resurgent Oakwood Stables, the horse – a 100-1 rank outsider – was only acquired when Paul Chapman, a factory worker at ICI’s Redcar plant, and his wife Jean, who worked in a Boots shop, won £10.4m on the National Lottery and decided to spend some of his winnings on his passion for racing. Their horses are named after their grandchildren.
However, the quietly-spoken Colliver is determined not to be over-awed. “You can’t let them intimidate you,” he told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “If you do, it will get the better of you.
“We are there to do a job and I’ve got to do it to the best of my ability. You can’t be worrying about anyone else, Ruby or whoever. You’ve got to make the most of moments like this. That’s what I keep telling myself.
“To be at Cheltenham is something different – it is our biggest race meeting of the year. To be in the Champion Chase is something else altogether.”
Colliver is not rash enough to make predictions of being the first Yorkshire-trained winner of the iconic race since Badsworth Boy – ridden by Harrogate’s Robert Earnshaw – completed a hat-trick of victories in 1985.
He respects the quality of the opposition after chasing the aforementioned Un De Sceaux at close quarters at last year’s Punchestown Festival when Just Cameron was a gallant second in a career-defining performance for horse and jockey.
Beaten just three lengths, no horse has come as close to Un De Sceaux on the 14 occasions when the Willie Mullins-trained chaser had completed the course (two falls blot an otherwise perfect record).
Yet he does concede that it is a considerable achievement to be deemed good enough to ride against such illustrious names in a Grade One race where he cannot utilise his three-pound conditional rider’s licence – a concession afforded to jockeys with less than 75 winners to their name.
Born in Sheffield, this son of a security guard left the then Aston Comprehensive in Swallownest with no qualifications of merit. “Nothing. You could spell ‘fudge’ with my GCSEs,” admitted Colliver.
Unbeknownst to his teachers, this reluctant pupil did graduate with a natural affinity with horses. He had ridden ponies since the age of three and competed – successfully – in team riding competitions like horse ball.
Then there was a frank conversation with his parents after leaving school with no GCSEs, no job – and no prospects. “I had nothing else to do. It was to do something with horses or be a ‘bum’,” he said.
Fortunately, Doncaster’s Northern Racing College provided training before Colliver ventured to Middleham in 2008 to begin a work placement with the aforementioned Hammond, a former Scottish National-winning jockey. He has not looked back.
Hammond’s first impression was a shy young man who needed to learn the craft of race-riding: “He was a nice, young, polite lad. He always had a good knowledge of horses and a good pair of hands. Horseman first, jockey second.”
The rider’s first victory came aboard Hammond’s San Deng at Catterick in January, 2011, but his career – a slow-burner until that point – only took off when Just Cameron joined the stable from Kate Walton’s nearby yard in May, 2013.
The combination clicked straight away, with Colliver knowing instantaneously, thanks to a rider’s intuition, that this was a special horse. “Just class,” he says. Four wins early last year, including the notable scalp of Duke of Navan on two occasions, culminated with Just Cameron finishing second in Punchestown’s Grade One Ryanair Novices Chase three lengths behind the imperious Un De Sceaux.
The trip to Ireland was a ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure for the jockey. Colliver could dare to dream as he spent last summer nursing badly injured nerves in his arm after falling at Cartmel and being kicked by a pursuing horse.
While the horse’s reappearance in Sandown’s Tingle Creek Chase was disappointing, the smile was back on Colliver’s face when Just Cameron was second at Doncaster on his last outing.
Like last year, this is a horse that gets better as the season progresses and weather warms up.
Colliver’s empathy with Just Cameron is self-evident as he saddles the nine-year-old gelding before a workout.
“Come on boy,” he says softly. “Come on son.”
Just Cameron stands obediently as his legs are bandaged as a precaution. “He’s so different when he’s at the races, he comes to life,” says the rider. “At Punchestown, he reared up, got vertical and I nearly came off backwards. Then he produced his best race. People always say ‘well done’ for finishing second. For me, second is the best loser – but this was the exception.”
As Colliver rides Just Cameron through Middleham, he is stood in the stirrups checking his phone as he passes the historic castle before a brisk gallop.
They are an imposing sight as the horse’s stride lengthens with effortless ease. He is content with the horse’s form ahead of Cheltenham where the jockey’s two previous rides at the NH Festival were modest ones. However, he does draw satisfaction from the fact that he – and Just Cameron – are good enough to compete in a race as illustrious as the Champion Chase. Few are.
“Aagh, it’s an ambition to ride in it,” he added. “You’ve got to make the most of it while it is there.”
Joe Colliver will.
The Joe Colliver story...
Joe Colliver rode the first of 65 career winners at Catterick in January, 2011, when San Deng prevailed in a hurdle race for Micky Hammond.
The North Yorkshire track also witnessed another landmark in Colliver’s career on New Year’s Day in 2014 –the victory of Alderbrook Lad was the jockey’s first over steeplechase fences.
He has recorded four career victories to date on Just Cameron, who is owned by Lottery winners Paul and Jean Chapman from Stockton. The horse’s red and white colours are in honour of Middlesbrough Football Club.