Festive stars: James King – ‘it snowballed and I was riding winners every weekend’

  • Over the festive season, we’re getting the scoop on a few up-and-coming riders across the equestrian disciplines. These are a select few individuals you really need to keep an eye out for during 2022. Here we meet point-to-point jockey James King…

    “I didn’t actually have a winner until April last season, so to then win the men’s jockey championship was just unbelievable,” so says 25-year-old James King, who, despite a stop-start 2020/21 point-to-point season, found himself as the leading rider in a strong division of fellow male jockeys last year. In fact, his 33 race wins eclipsed those of 2019/20 victor Jack Andrews, who tallied 16 in the runner-up spot and Will Biddick and Bradley Gibbs in joint third, who both recorded 15 wins between the Flags.

    “You start every season thinking you want to do well and that it’d be great to be champion, but you have to be realistic with these things,” says a matter-of-fact Cotswold born and bred James. “But it just snowballed between April and June and I was riding winners every weekend – it just sort of happened.”

    The quartet of James King, Jack, Will and Bradley were “neck and neck” for a large proportion of the season.

    “Then one day at Tabley last May I rode a treble and Bradley rang me up and said ‘congratulations, you’ve won your championship’. I think there were still only three or four winners between us and it was sporting of him to do that, but you never count your chickens,” says James.

    James’ childhood was packed full with Pony Club and hunting.

    “I have been around horses all my life – my father was a Racing Post journalist for the West Country, mum had ponies growing up and they were both great at letting me skive off school on a Monday to go hunting with the Beaufort,” he laughs. “I didn’t do any pony racing, but I used to ride short and bomb around on the ponies with my friends, pretending to be jockeys.”

    James, who now has two Aintree Foxhunter titles to his name, says that he always wanted to be a jockey while growing up.

    “But at that age you think it’ll be easy and then you soon realise it’s not, and that’s why I chose to be an amateur. It’s nothing to do with weight as I’m lighter than a lot of professionals, but I thought there was more opportunity in the amateur ranks and I decided I would much rather be a big fish in a small pond.”

    James King

    James and Cousin Pascal (right) en-route to Aintree Foxhunter victory

    James spent all of his spare time around school riding out.

    “I’d cycle to my local trainers, and one of them was Tim Sage, who gave me my first ride in a point-to-point on a horse called Presentandcorrect.”

    And so on 1 April 2013, on that first ever ride between the Flags for James, he made a dream start, winning by a couple of lengths.

    “Obviously you have this delusional teenage dream that you’ll win on your first ride, but when it did happen it didn’t really sink in,” he explains. “But it took me 365 days to ride another winner, and I think I learnt a lot from that.”

    At the age of 18, James went to work for multiple champion National Hunt trainer, Paul Nicholls as a stable lad for three years.

    “I learned a huge amount – there’s a lot of good jockeys riding out there and you don’t go there with your eyes closed. It was a great learning curve and I took a lot of it on board to improve my race riding and training.”

    Following his stint at Nicholls’, James went to work for another National Hunt trainer, Neil Mulholland for a couple of years, during which he became champion amateur jockey and also scored his first Foxhunter victory. This was followed up with a year at Will Biddick’s yard and he has since been with Fran Nimmo and Charlie Poste at their Warwickshire base, and also at Olly Murphy’s just down the road from them, too.

    “Fran and Charlie are my main stable and I will ride for them if they have a horse entered,” explains James. “And I’m Olly Murphy’s retained amateur jockey – the two yards work hand in hand as Charlie and Fran break in all of Ollie’s stores [unbroken three-year-olds].”

    James puts a large amount of his championship win down to the fact that he was riding older horses as well as four-year-olds that would win a race and then go straight to the sales for Fran and Charlie.

    “Riding those older horses meant that I could ride two, three or four winners on them over the course of the season, which was a huge help.”

    And so with 330 rides under Rules under his belt, incorporating 40 winners, and 470 rides in point-to-points, clocking up 91 winners, and counting, James says that his main aim is to stay “fit and healthy”.

    “But I also train a couple of pointers myself, and that worked quite well last year with the two horses notching five wins over eight runs,” he says. “So although training isn’t something I’m looking into now, it’s maybe something I’ll pursue in five to 10 years time.”

    Jockey James King with horses at yard. Stratford upon avon.

    But how does a jockey find time to train as well as ride?

    “Sometimes I end up riding them at 5am before I go into work, and sometimes it will be at 5pm – the horses I train have to fit in around my riding commitments for other people,” explains James. “But the horses I was training last season were older sorts and they lived out together. If I was really short on time, I would ride and lead canter work up the gallops. Actually, that sort of lifestyle really helped to freshen up the old boys and helped them to score their wins.”

    So how about the 2021/22 point-to-point season and gunning for a second championship?

    “Of course, you always want to win another, once you’ve got that first one, but I’m under no illusion that it’s ever going to happen again because there is a lot of strength in depth in the men’s division of point-to-pointing,” says James. “Those guys I beat last year are all biting at my heels. If I don’t win it, one of them will, but I’ll just keep trying to ride as many winners as I can.”

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