‘Nothing beats winning’ – a rising star, a battle-scarred veteran, two Cheltenham journeys

first_img Bryony Frost points to her horse Frodon after victory in the Crest Nicholson Handicap Chase during Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham in January. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian Share on Pinterest Facebook Topics Since you’re here… Twitter Pinterest Share on Facebook Facebook Twitter Share on WhatsApp I’ve been to Brennan’s house three times this year and, unlike a typical starving jockey, he has fed me croissants, biscuits and sandwiches. He has also opened up with riveting candour. Last week, while kicking a plastic football around with his son Jack, Brennan nodded when I reminded him of the tortuous interview we did before he knew he would ride Cue Card again. We had just escaped the miserable rain of January and the heavy snow of March had yet to fall. Brennan felt the opposite of Frost’s free bird. He sounded trapped by racing – but he explained why he was still compelled to ride.“The winning,” he said. “Nothing beats winning. I’ve never done drugs, never will do, but if there’s ever a drug in life it’s winning. The sweetest day was winning the [2010] Gold Cup on Imperial Commander. It was one of them races that no matter what I did it was right. It was like a movie. ‘Jesus, I won the Gold Cup.’ I was pissed then – drunk with joy.”Brennan has been in racing long enough not to linger over glory. “You might not come back, you mightn’t come home. I was close to Sean Cleary [who died after his horse fell in 2003]. I was there when Tom Halliday lost his life at Market Rasen [in 2005]. I was in the race, beside him, when he fell. Someone rings you half an hour later and says Tom’s dead. Jesus, that can’t be right. I spoke to him 40 minutes ago.”He has been fortunate even if, soon after starting his career in England at Nicholls’s yard, “I smashed my leg bad. I had difficulty trying to get off the horse with a broken leg – because the bottom half was still in the iron. I was happy to die that day.“Physical pain is easily fixed by morphine. Whereas psychological pain is there every day. But this morning it’s beautiful. I appreciate life a lot more now. Because there were times in my life where I probably didn’t want to live any more. But I’ve got out of that carry-on. I only had one situation in Catterick when I had to ring my mother. I said: ‘Mum, I’m struggling to get out of this car.’ She said: ‘You’ll be fine, get out, go to work.’ I got out and had a winner or two that day. I was fine again.“Definitely having kids and being with my wife Lindsey has helped me stay strong mentally. When I was at [trainer] Fergal O’Brien’s this morning, it was amazing. The sun is rising, there’s frost on the ground, steam coming off the horses. I could’ve stayed all day.” Facebook Bryony Frost pats her horse Black Corton as they approach the winning post to claim victory in the Reynoldstown Novce Chase at Ascot in February. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian Facebook Frost shares this feeling. In her small cottage in Shepton Mallett, she says: “I like the view on top of a horse, wherever it is. I’m born into the racing world. I opened my eyes and my horse was in my world. That runs through my veins. I wouldn’t want to be in any other world.”She laughs. “Feral is the best word for myself. As a child, town scared the living daylights out of me. I never saw concrete. It was grass fields, trees, bogs, my animals. When we were on ponies, Dad would lead me and I remember when I was four him saying: ‘Right, you’re on your own.’ Unclipped me and away I went. I’d disappear at seven in the morning and return at seven in the evening, light to dusk. They gave me a phone. Dad taught me if I pressed the green button twice it would call him. It was never a worry. It was only: ‘Dad, pony has lost a shoe. I need picking up.’” “He is a dude. But he used to be the little kid at the back of the classroom. He probably had big glasses on, his tie was done up tight and he always concentrated hard. He wasn’t the one the girls went for whereas now he’s got his big smart suit and he’s walking around London as the boss. He’s got a couple of models he needs to ring up. He’s got a lot of swag.”Frost has a lot of grit. When she was 15, after a fall, “a kidney problem caused a kink in my bladder. The infection turned into septicaemia and went to the lungs. I was in hospital for two months. I was close to death. Twelve operations later we got sorted and a fortnight after my last stent was removed I rode a winner on a lovely mare.”She had an even lovelier win at Ascot last month with Black Corton. Frost rode him brilliantly, without gloves, her painted fingernails flashing above his inky coat. “Rhythm wins races. You can’t impede his stride because the more oxygen you get into him the faster and longer he can run. So you need to get it as smooth as possible, like riding a wave, as quiet as that. Sit low, sit close to him, feel him, listen to his breathing.”Is this intuitive way of riding why she doesn’t wear gloves? Frost laughs. “Gloves? I’m not a big fan. Mum is always telling me off: ‘B, you can’t have rough hands – moisturise them for God’s sake.’ So I started looking after them and thought it would be cool to have some blue nail varnish. Blackie has blue colours.“Poor Mum. I’m more boyish than my brothers. She bought me a dress yesterday in case I have to go to an evening thing and I’m like: ‘Yeah, really nice, Mum.’ She’s like, ‘Oh B, just try it on.’”Frost is more excited when remembering how she and Frodon raced Brennan and Cue Card in the Ascot Chase that same day. “I thought: ‘I’m following Paddy Brennan on Cue Card in a Grade One at Ascot. That’s cool. Frodon was a little free the first half-mile and Paddy said: ‘We’re going some clip.’ I said: ‘You’re telling me. I don’t want to be going this fast.’” “We’re realistic. He’s 12 – but if there’s ever a race made from him at Cheltenham it’s the Ryanair. Over that trip you can go a gear quicker whereas over three mile two in the Gold Cup you’re saving a bit to make sure he gets homeUn De Sceaux won last year but he’s not unbeatable. Cue Card will give him a good race.”Frost smiles when asked if Black Corton can win on Wednesday. “You’ll have to ask the dude himself. But I’ll believe in him and he’ll believe in me. I’ve never said: ‘I’d love to win that race or get those many winners.’ If you have a goal and you reach it you’ve hit a ceiling. If you have an open sky you can only keep going up.”As winter fades, Brennan looks happier than at any time over the past three months. I remember the footage taken a few weeks earlier when he rode the mechanical horse he keeps upstairs while his sons Jack and Oli watched him. And then it was the turn of his boys. Brennan cackled and roared as if they were racing at Cheltenham. “G’wan!” he yelled as the boys rocked back and forth. It was dark and cold outside but the Brennan house was lit up from the inside.Sunshine now floods Brennan’s home. All thoughts of “jacking it in” have gone. “I’m still addicted to winning. Nothing is going to beat what I’m doing now. When I retire the dream is over. Nothing in the world is going to replace it.”Brennan looks up and makes another admission. “Today is the first time I made myself watch the 2016 Gold Cup. I always thought he might have won if we hadn’t fallen – after today I’m certain he’d have won.” Did he feel better? “Fuck, you’re still like …” Brennan shrugs. “There’s no point crying over it. Now it’s important to look to this week. I’m better for all that’s happened and it’s lovely to be back in the Cue Card story. I thought last year was the last crack – but I’ve got another go.”If, somehow, Brennan and Cue Card win on Thursday will the hurt be fixed? “I try not to picture that any more. But it’s like it’s meant to be. Anything is possible. It will be unbelievable after all our downs. I’m going there to enjoy it – and just feel free.”Free as a bird? “Yeah,” Brennan says softly. “Free as a fucking bird.”Follow the Stobart Jump Jockeys’ Championship table at gbracing/jumpchamps Pinterest Share on Messenger Twitter Physical pain is easily fixed by morphine. Whereas psychological pain is there every dayPaddy Brennan An old photo showing a two-year-old Bryony Frost on her donkey called Nosey at her family home on Dartmoor. Photograph: The Guardian interviews ‘You finish second and you’re getting more of a reception than the winner? He’s unbelievable – the most loved horse in jump racing.’ Paddy Brennan takes his saddle off Cue Card after they finished second in the Betfair Chase at Ascot. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian Brennan confirms that: “I said, ‘Bryony, you either go forward or back’ – to be fair she pulled back. I don’t look at the women as female jockeys. They’re the same competition. I ain’t giving Bryony an inch at the start, or in the race, because I know she’s good.”It looked as if Brennan had conjured up a miraculous comeback win for Cue Card, only for the horse to be overtaken near the end by Waiting Patiently. “I thought I was going to win,” Brennan says. “I rode a really aggressive race and I felt like a winner just getting on the horse – back out amongst the best jockeys, the best horses.”The biggest cheers at Ascot were for Brennan and Cue Card in second place. Brennan shakes his head. “The cheers were all for Cue Card. You finish second and you’re getting more of a reception than the winner? He’s unbelievable – the most loved horse in jump racing.”Now only days from riding Cue Card at Cheltenham, Brennan remembers how he heard he was back on his favourite horse. “You were here the Monday when my agent Dave Roberts texted me. It was lunchtime, when I went to get you sandwiches, and he said it was unlikely even though Harry Cobden would be riding for Nicholls. He texted next in the morning and said: ‘There’s a bit of hope.’ I got a message about 10 o’clock Wednesday. Dave said: ‘We ride Cue Card. You need to school him tomorrow.’ I went down to school him and, bloody hell, he felt amazing – like he hadn’t felt for a long time. Twitter Share on LinkedIn Read more That unshackled freedom is different to the booming wave engulfing her now. Frost loves to surf and she says: “Yeah, the current wave I’m stuck in is definitely one I don’t want to come out of. But you’d be mad if you said you weren’t overwhelmed by it.”Racing would love to anoint her as the coming superstar but Frost shakes her head. “I definitely would not call myself a superstar. The banter in the yard is always flowing and at first I took it too personal because I was new to the world of people. Basically, down in Devon, there weren’t many about. But we have a laugh and I’ve got a thicker skin on me. I’m growing up.”Since she and Black Corton teamed up last July they have won seven out of eight races. Their greatest success came on Boxing Day at Kempton when they won their first Grade One. “I said: ‘B, you can’t get this little horse beat again.’ And to see Blackie become a Grade One winner was incredible. Wow, what a day.”Brennan has tasted 17 such days but he lingers over his biggest failure. Back in the Cotswolds, he relived falling on Cue Card in 2016. “It’s the moment I can never fix. I was feeling empty and sick. I was puking and I wasn’t even sick. There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t think of that fall. If winning the Gold Cup on Imperial Commander was like a movie, this was a fucking horror show. People say: ‘At least you’ve won the Gold Cup.’ Well, it doesn’t feel like that to me anymore. I need to win another one. Then it might feel OK.”When Brennan uttered these words he had no idea he would ride Cue Card again. It was impossible not to compare his struggle with the delight Frost found in Black Corton. “He’s got a funny little waddle and great big ears,” Frost said of her horse. “You’d lose him in a shadow he’s so jet-black. Blackie was never expected to achieve much. That just shows you it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from. If you want to achieve, then do it. Pinterest ‘She’s free as a bird,” Paddy Brennan says of Bryony Frost as he rocks in his kitchen chair and opens his arms wide to show the soaring rise of his fellow jockey. Brennan knows, after all his highs and lows, how different he feels on the inside. But his face creases in a smile as he thinks of Frost, of all her hope and youth, as his arms fall slowly down.The Cheltenham Festival begins on Tuesday and Brennan and Frost offer compelling stories. Frost is the new star of jump racing, an exuberant young woman riding waves of success and publicity, and on Wednesday she and Black Corton race for glory in the RSA Chase. On Thursday Brennan is back in the saddle on Cue Card, the most loved horse in Britain, returning to the track where he has suffered. Facebook Support The Guardian Paddy Brennan celebrates victory on board Imperial Commander in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2010. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian Share on Twitter In 2016 Cue Card and Brennan were on course to win the Gold Cup and a million-pound bonus when they fell heavily at the third-last fence. On the eve of last year’s race Brennan told me his catastrophic fall was “like seeing your best friend is in bed with your missus. It’s a sickly feeling”.Horse and rider went out in the 2017 Gold Cup, seeking redemption, and fell at the same fence. Brennan then lost the ride to Frost’s boyfriend, Harry Cobden, but he and Cue Card were reunited last month and will try to “fix” Brennan’s wound in the Ryanair Chase. Cheltenham Festival 2018 Cheltenham Festival The photographer Tom Jenkins and I have spent the past three months with Brennan and Frost; at home, on the gallops and at the stables, following them from Wincanton to Ascot. It has been a moving study in contrast.Brennan has won 17 Grade One races while Frost is a conditional jockey, still mucking out the stables of her champion trainer, Paul Nicholls. She rode her first Grade One winner in December. He comes from a non‑racing background in County Galway while she grew up near Dartmoor as the daughter of Jimmy Frost, the Grand National‑winning jockey. The immensely likeable Frost is now the darling of racing while Brennan follows his solitary path as a great jockey approaching the end.Yet, deep down, Brennan and Frost are not so different. They even share the same birthday. On 13 April Brennan will turn 37; Frost will be 23. They have both been badly hurt, and faced down death, and are most alive when talking about the horses they love.“I’m a youngster coming up so it’s daunting when you see the big guns,” Frost says. “Paddy’s a fiery character. When he wins you know it and when he loses you see the pain. You know where you stand with Paddy.” Share via Email Talking Horses: Douvan left in the Champion Chase with Ruby Walsh up Horse racing Pinterest … we have a small favour to ask. 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We need your support to keep delivering quality journalism that’s open and independent. Every reader contribution, however big or small, is so valuable. Support The Guardian from as little as $1 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you. Black Corton a dude. But he used to be the little kid at the back of the classroomBryony Frost Twitter Pinterest Reuse this contentlast_img

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