Sam Waley-Cohen is credited with getting Prince William and Kate Middleton back together
The amateur jockey will ride one of the favorites in Saturday's prestigious Grand National
But he also runs a multimillion-dollar dental business throughout the UK
He rides with the initials of his dead brother in his saddle after his death from cancer
Would you go to work for nothing? More to the point, would you do so risking life and limb riding a horse in one of the world’s toughest races?
These days amateurs competing in professional sport are almost an extinct breed, but Sam Waley-Cohen is a throwback to a bygone era – the archetypal “gentleman jockey.”
By day he runs a multimillion-dollar series of dental practices; at the weekend he rides over some of the world’s toughest fences, unpaid and purely for the love of it.
A modern-day jack of all trades, he boasts helicopter and plane licenses, is a keen mountaineer and is even credited as the man that got Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton back together after a pre-wedding separation.
The highlight of his weekend job is looming on Saturday: the Grand National, the world’s toughest steeplechase with a prize fund of £1 million ($1.66 million).
“The Grand National for a jockey is a bit like a fighter pilot in his plane in a series of dog fights,” says the 31-year-old, who will saddle up on one of the favorites, Long Run.
“It’s a very unusual challenge of very intense periods and occasional moments of reflection. It’s a race that’s impossible to replicate. Every single fence is a big challenge, it’s twice as long as your average race.
“It’s the one and only race in the world where you can say it’s the best experience of your life even if you don’t win.”
Waley-Cohen has come close – he was second on Oscar Time in 2011 and fourth on the same mount a year ago. Long Run, meanwhile, is a winner of the prestigious Cheltenham Gold Cup and the King George VI Chase, two other jewels in jump-jockey circles.
“One of my first memories is riding a rocking horse at home in which I acted out riding the Grand National,” he recalls. “It’s a race I love, that gives me butterflies. If you don’t get that with the National, you should probably think about doing something else.”
Virtually every jockey in Saturday’s field will be a paid-up professional, but Waley-Cohen – who has about 30-40 rides a year – is just happy to be competing with them.
“Sometimes I watch the pros in the races and wonder how I can compete with them,” he admits.
“They’re the best in the world, the best people that have ever ridden. It’s such a buzz to line up alongside them.
“And I’m very lucky to have been able to do that because of my Dad.”
Robert Waley-Cohen, son of the former Lord Mayor of London, owns the horses that Sam rides, and has enabled his son to pursue this hobby with, it has to be said, remarkable success.
“An amateur in horse racing, in fact in all sport, is quite rare now,” says Waley-Cohen Jr. “As sport is more and more professional, it’s harder to compete.
“Can someone that doesn’t dedicate themselves to it day-to-day do it? It’s a good question. I hope I’ve proved it’s possible and I wouldn’t say it’s the end of an era exactly, but it’s becoming more rare. Over the last 40 years there’s been less and less amateur jockeys.”
National Hunt racing is a dangerous business. At last year’s Cheltenham Festival, JT McNamara was paralyzed after fracturing two vertebrae in a fall, while last month fellow Irishman Jason Maguire, the 2011 Grand National winner, was put into a medically induced coma after a fall.
Those are a mere snapshot of the sport’s dangers, which makes the decision by an amateur, and one who became a parent for the first time last year, all the more surprising.
“I don’t go to the races thinking I’m going to get hurt or that I’m not going to come back,” Waley-Cohen says.
“If I felt like that I wouldn’t do it. As for having a family, I think that makes it easier. It’s not the be-all and end-all anymore as you have a family to go back to afterwards.
“But there are tough days when you fall off and are trampled over and you wonder, ‘What am I doing?’”
The reason for this adrenalin junky’s desire to continue racing is often attributed to his brother Thomas, who died aged 20 in 2005 from Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of cancer.