IT’S a dank evening when I meet Aidan Coleman at a Little Chef off the M6 south of Birmingham. He’s on his way back from Southwell where he had a solitary ride earlier in the day and the stop is not so far from his base near Hereford.
The outing only netted a third place aboard Venetia Williams’ Theatre Diva, but that is of little consequence to the 20-year-old from Innishannon, Co. Cork. With just weeks to go before the Cheltenham festival and riding as conditional jockey for the Kings Capel yard, Coleman has racked up nearly 50 winners and prize money of over half-a-million pounds and looks nailed on to win the conditional title in Britain.
That is no mean achievement for the youngster, especially as he has absolutely no background in racing and only came to the sport as a result of racing a pony which his mum bought for himself and his brother.
Now the racing world is literally at his feet and several winning rides in big televised meetings this season have put his name firmly in the sights of the racing establishment. Coleman is a very mature lad for his age and his no-nonsense approach to his career undoubtedly comes from a very solid grounding back home.
“My parents are both teachers, so we learned early on how important it was to be polite and well-mannered and that has counted for a lot in terms of where I have come from and where I am now,” he relates.
“My brother Kevin started riding and he quite liked it so my mum got us a pony and we messed around with that. When I was about 12 or 13 I started taking part in pony races and I also started going in to work at John Murphy’s yard in Upton, which is just up the road from us at home. It basically went from there. I spent a lot of time at John’s during school holidays and as time went on I also began to spend a lot of time at Pat Doyle’s place in Tipperary as well.
“I am best friends with Pat’s son Jack (himself a nascent professional jockey) and I met him through the pony racing scene. Pat has a thing going with Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud operation and a lot of their horses are evaluated there before they are sent out to whoever will train them.
“Myself and Jack did a lot of schooling up there as well as messing around with the ponies after riding out in the mornings. I did quite well pony racing. I couldn’t finish school soon enough and while I did the Leaving Cert, as soon as I had it done, John Murphy got me a job here in England with Henrietta Knight and Terry Biddlecombe. Hen and Terry were great — I probably couldn’t have learned any more anywhere else. Terry was particularly helpful to me, being a former jockey himself and while I only had a few racecourse rides while I was with them, I really learned a lot about how to work with the horses. It was a great experience. I had dinner with them most nights — Hen is a great cook — I really appreciate what they did for me.”
At the end of the season the good offices of newfound friend and fellow jockey Sam Thomas (rider of last year’s Gold Cup winner Denman), Hen and Terry and his agent Sam Strong all conspired to help him find a place at Venetia Williams’ yard.
“I went there that August and I’ve been there a year and a half now and it is going well.
My claim is nearly gone and I am well clear in the conditional jockeys’ championship and it would be very nice to win that. Obviously the aim is to win as many races as possible, but if the title came along too, then well and good.”
The Cork man admits that it does not seem so long ago that he was studying for his Leaving at the Bishopstown Community School in Cork, where his dad Pat still teaches (his mum Eileen used to teach in Ballyphehane but now works with the Dept. of Education), but he says that long before his arrival in England, he knew what he wanted to be in life.
“It was difficult enough at the start,” he admits. “Moving from the family home to a strange environment was hard, but I had spent a summer in France when I was 15 or 16 with John Hammond and before that I had a summer with David Wachman. I know it was only summers away from home, but it got you used to the idea and used to being away from your family.”
Single-minded and focused on his ambition, he saw the move from Knight’s West Lockinge Farm operation to Williams’ base at Kings Capel as no great sea change, because the rhythm of any racing stable is pretty similar wherever you go.
“I fitted in fairly quickly. I live near the yard and I like it because it is very quiet and very like Ireland in many ways. I share a house with another lad, Craig Thompson, who also rides for Venetia so the whole set-up is grand.”
The danger for him, he reckons, is to start taking it for granted.
“I have to keep raising the bar. When I started to rack up a few winners I was thinking ‘it would be nice to ride 10’ and then it became 20 and so on. Now that I’ve ridden over 40, I’m thinking: ‘it would be nice to ride 60.’ You keep raising that bar.”
Aidan says that his initial experiences of English weighrooms was obviously difficult for an unknown Irish hopeful, but that as the winners came along, it became a very pleasant place to be.
“Initially I don’t think anyone even noticed me, so I just sat back and took in the atmosphere. But once you get known and once you’ve had a few winners, you get talking to people and you get better known. But it is a great place to be and it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done; everyone gets on really well and all the lads are brilliant — they all pull for one another. It is actually a difficult place not to fit in and, to be honest, you’d want to be a complete langer not to fit in.”
Having an agent is an absolute must for any jockey these days and Coleman says he is no different in that regard. He pays a lot of credit to Sam Strong for not only having the confidence in him to take him on board on the recommendation of Sam Thomas, but also for booking as many outside rides as possible for him even after he had signed up with Venetia Williams.
“He got me outside rides even before I had ridden for Venetia and I’m fairly sure my first two winners were on board horses trained by other people. That takes some doing on his behalf, because he had to persuade people to have faith in a complete novice. Thankfully I haven’t let him down yet.
“I’ve had winners for people like Bob Buckler, Oliver Sherwood, Matt Sheppard and people like that and a lot of small trainers have been very good to me and I think that keeping them happy as well as keeping Venetia happy is a major part of the whole thing.”
Alongside Strong, he cites Sam Thomas as having been a great help both professionally and personally. “Both himself and my brother Kevin always have a word of advice for me. He’s the stable jockey with Venetia and I always ring him before I ride any of her horses, even if I’m familiar with them. It is fantastic to have that sort of support.”
When he is asked to evaluate his own style of riding, it is no surprise really to hear the Corkman provide a succinct, but insightful, assessment of how he goes about his business.
“I’m a quiet rider. I like to let the horse do the work as such and I would not be very busy throughout a race. Fair enough, at the business end of things you do what you have to do, but out in the country I would not be over-robust. I am probably not physically as strong as many of the other lads so it does not really suit me to ride that way; it suits me better to sit that bit quieter.
“I am quite tall — nearly 6ft — so I try and make myself look small in the saddle. Touch wood, weight has never been an issue and while I try and eat as healthily as possible, I can still make 10 stone no bother.”
As he gears up for the Cheltenham festival he reckons most of his involvement will centre on some of the big handicaps with horses such as Stan, Carrickboy, Chief Yeoman, Stow, Lightening Strike and others. It would, he admits, be a dream to have a winner at the festival, but accepts most of his rides will be no better than each-way chances.
A winner at the festival would be nice — “just to get it over with” — but there are bigger targets to aim for and Aidan Coleman is aiming high.
He’s young, he’s intelligent, he’s personable, he’s talented and — most important of all — he’s arrived.