Michael Owen makes jockey debut
He finished second on Calder Prince at Ascot
Owen enjoyed hugely successful football career
He’d never even sat on a horse until five months ago, let alone race one.
But on Friday, former England international footballer Michael Owen made his debut as a jockey and finished an impressive second place in a charity race at one of the world’s most prestigious racecourses, Ascot.
The 37-year-old, who is already a successful racehorse owner and breeder, was one of 10 amateur riders competing in the Prince’s Countryside Fun Charity Race, on board the aptly named Calder Prince.
“The accomplishment of finishing second, being safe and sound, and having a great time was amazing. There was plenty of good to come out of the day.” said Owen who was presented with a prize by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall after the race.
Owen and Calder Prince briefly hit the front of the pack after rounding the home turn but they were run out of it in the final stages by the winner, Golden Wedding, ridden by Tom Chatfield-Roberts.
“It was the fastest I’ve ever been on a horse,” Owen said. “All of a sudden I was in front – I was thinking ‘come on now’. But that was a long way out and I got very tired in the last furlong.
“You never know, I’ll probably end up doing it again. I’d probably stick to the charity races because it’s great raising money for charities.
“I’ve also managed to lose a lot of weight as well, so that’s another added bonus.
“It was such good fun and I’m really pleased with the whole outcome. My horse ran a cracking race and I’m delighted to be second.”
Unlike Owen, the victor on the day, Chatfield-Roberts, has been involved with horses from a very early age, working in jump and flat racing yards, and recently qualified from the Royal Veterinary College.
He has raced as an amateur for the last six seasons and ridden more than 20 winners.
“It was a great thrill to get past the winning post at Ascot in front,” said Chatfield-Roberts.
“The race was good fun, but we went a little quicker than I’m used to. It was a great experience and a day I will never forget.”
Trying to control a sizable animal that can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour places huge demands on the human body and training has been tough for Owen, who was never allowed to get on a horse during his football career due to the risk of injury.
He lost more than a stone in weight since he started training in March and, earlier this month, was thrown to the ground twice at Newmarket’s British Racing School.
However, none of that put him off and he chose a lively horse for the big day, Calder Prince, trained by Tom Dascombe, who is the resident trainer at Owen’s Manor House Stables which he established in 2007.
“Calder Prince gives me the best chance of winning, and this was never just about taking part,” joked Owen, who was crowned European Footballer of the Year in 2001 when he was a striker at Liverpool, before going on to play for Real Madrid, Newcastle United, Manchester United and Stoke City.
“Having said that, I realize just crossing the line will be an achievement,” added Owen, who announced himself on football’s global stage with a stunning solo goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. “It has been a big learning curve.”
“Riding sometimes looks easy but having tried it myself I realize that it’s just the jockeys making it look straightforward. Experiencing first hand quite how difficult it has definitely increased my respect for jockeys.”
WATCH: CNN visited Owen’s stables in 2014
READ: What keeps a jockey in the saddle after a life-threatening injury
Owen, who remains the youngest player to reach 100 Premier League goals, retired from football in 2013 but has kept himself busy developing his 170-acre training yard in Cheshire, situated between Liverpool and Manchester, which he bought in 2007. He also works as a football TV pundit.
The co-founder of betting company Betfair, Andrew Black, became joint owner of the stables in 2009 and they then brought on board trainer Dascombe, who today has more than 100 horses based at the yard.
They’ve had 599 domestic flat race winners to date, and plenty of success abroad too, most notably Brown Panther, who took the Irish St Leger and the $1 million Dubai Gold Cup.
Dascombe told CNN he’s been impressed by how the footballer-turned-jockey has prepared himself.
“It’s been a smooth transition from having never having sat on a horse before, to getting into the situation we’re at now,” he said.
“Michael’s done remarkably well, he’s had a couple of tumbles, but he’s got back up and got on with it.”
“To put it into context, I’ve been riding ponies since I was four and it was still a massive challenge to ride in a race at 19, having had 15 years experience of riding and five years working at a professional racing yard, and he’s done it in five months.”
At five foot 7 inches, Owen is the same height at British flat champion jockey, Silvestre de Souza, but Dascombe joked that the former football could never have been a professional rider because “he wouldn’t do the weight.”
Flat jockeys in the UK cannot be any lighter than 53 kg (116.8 lbs) but, the closer to the weight they can be the better to lessen the load carried by the horse.
‘I know I’m stupid’
Owen has not ruled out racing again but he is well aware of the dangers involved. In 2004, his wife Louise fell off a horse while riding in the grounds of their home and was lucky to escape with just a fractured pelvis.
“I know I’m stupid,” Owen told the Daily Express newspaper. “I’d probably had a couple of drinks when I agreed to do it. And my mum is still beside herself and telling me not to dot it and my wife is saying ‘what are you doing?’”
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It’s certainly dangerous but at least Owen was racing on the flat, unlike Britain’s former Olympic champion track cyclist, Victoria Pendleton, who rode over the jumps at last year’s Cheltenham Festival.
Despite falling in her debut race a few weeks before, she held her nerve to finish fifth out of 24 runners in the Foxhunter Chase on board Pacha Du Polder, which resulted in one of the biggest cheers on Gold Cup day.