Event rider Andrew Nicholson has ridden — and won — on some of the most prestigious turf in the world. But now a new challenge faces him, as today (Thursday 12 March) he will be galloping up the famous Prestbury Park hill at the Cheltenham Festival.
The six-time Olympic rider will be swapping disciplines and taking part in a charity race at Cheltenham — the St Patrick’s Day Derby — in aid of the Injured Jockeys Fund.
He’ll be partnering Golden Jubilee, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies.
But how does a top eventer more used to tackling obstacles at Badminton and Burghley prepare for a 1m5f Flat race? H&H finds out.
Working with a top trainer
Andrew’s no stranger to the Gloucestershire track and has worked with local trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies at Grange Hill Farm for the best part of 12 years.
He’s usually schooling horses over fences, working on their jumping skills, but the past few weeks have seen him become acquainted with his charity race mount — Golden Jubilee — up the Naunton gallops.
“There’s more connection between National Hunt racing and eventing than some people realise,” he says. “ If I can ride at Cheltenham and raise the profile for eventing in racing and vice versa then it’s a great for both sports.”
And with Nigel, his son Sam — number one jockey to Champion trainer Paul Nicholls — and dual Grand National winnner Carl Llewellyn on hand to help, there are no shortage of tips coming Andrew’s way.
But you never know with horses. “They could tell me 100 things that could happen and it will be the 101st that does,” says Andrew.
Channelling the nerves
He’s ridden in six Olympics, won Burghley a record five times and secured medals at three World Equestrian Games. Surely riding in a race won’t cause the notoriously cool Kiwi rider to break a sweat?
And yet when he’s legged up in the paddock he adminst the nerves will be creeping in.
“Sure, I’ll be a bit nervous but I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “After all that’s part of the buzz.”
Watching the jockeys
Andrew says preparing for Cheltenham is the same as for any big event, but that watching how the professionals ride a race is interesting.
“Eventers can learn an awful lot from the way jockeys ride — they are very effective and stylish,” says Andrew. “It’s like in cross-country, you have to be economical.”
Keeping in shape
Fortunately for Andrew the day job keeps him fit enough, and he won’t be resorting to spending hours in the sauna like many jockeys have to.
Rumours of him having to shift two stone ahead of the big day were clearly overexaggerated — add some extra time on the rowing machine and he’s good to go.
“I probably do need to lose a few more pounds as I don’t want to have to ride in a saddle the size of a handkerchief though,” he adds.
Adapting to “jockey style”
Andrew may ride three or four horses a day on his gallops at home but he’s had to think about a different style of riding – hoiking those stirrups up a few notches is not easy on the legs.
“Obviously it’s going to be a lot more tiring riding a racing finish, but I hope it’s not that different to the last couple of minutes at Badminton.
“Your legs will be sorer and will tire quicker riding shorter but the main test will be sitting still for a mile and a half.”
In eventing it’s just you and the horse, in racing Andrew will have to be aware of the other 11 runners around him.
And finally there’s the issue of knowing what speed to go — Andrew knows exactly what he needs to do to get the ultimate time on any cross-country course, but what is correct in a 1m5f race is a totally different scenario.
“As long as I do everything I’m supposed to then that’s all I can do,” he says.
“I’m not sure there’s any more pressure on me than anyone else [as an Olympic rider] — I just want to enjoy the moment and the thrill of being at Cheltenham.”
The St Patrick’s Day Derby is run at 5.15pm on Thursday 12 March. Find out how Andrew gets on at www.horseandhound.co.uk