Soon Harry Cobden will talk about farming and freedom but, first, the place to start is the story that would give careers advisers and teachers nightmares.
Cobden is riding at the peak of his powers, with 90 wins notched already this winter but there is no dwelling on success.
He has the most pressurised job in National Hunt racing, as first jockey to 14-times champion trainer Paul Nicholls, and victories are all that matter.
‘He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever come across,’ says Cobden, sitting in a restaurant at Newbury racecourse.
‘The will to win is absolutely unbelievable. Second? Who cares? No one remembers the second, do they? It’s all about today, never about tomorrow.’
Harry Cobden (pictured) has had an exceptional 2023 and is targeting even more success
Trainer Paul Nicholls (pictured) is demanding, but Cobden consistently delivers
You need a certain mindset to thrive in such a ferociously competitive environment but Cobden, 25, has a rare disposition: he will back himself in any situation and this, neatly, brings us to how he skipped his English GCSE exam — unbeknown to his mum, Sarah — to take the ride that changed his life.
It was March 6, 2015 and a lowly Hunters Chase at Leicester. El Mondo was the horse he had travelled from his home in Somerset to ride but odds of 33-1 indicated that not much was expected. Here was more evidence that it doesn’t pay to make assumptions.
‘I knew it was the right thing to do because I knew I wanted to be a jockey,’ he explains. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t know I would get to where I’ve got, but at the same time everything that I wanted to do never revolved around qualifications. The horse was very keen, I’m not sure he had ever won before. I dropped it in last, they went flat out and I felt like I was skiing down the hill. But when we turned in, I got a lucky split, I picked him up to challenge and I got up on the line, won by a head. That was a brilliant day!
‘I worked out I could leave school on my 16th birthday, as long as I had a job to walk into and I had to have some training adviser to say that this is what I’m doing. So I managed to get all the forms signed and everything was good.’
There was a fair degree of youthful bravado involved but fireworks were coming.
Cobden continues: ‘I came home and said, “Right, after November 5 I’m not going back to school!” My family were like, “What do you mean?” I said, ‘I’ve got a job with (trainer) Anthony Honeyball. I’m going to work for him; I’ve sorted out I can leave school. November 5 comes, I ain’t going back”.
‘They were like, “Well you are!” I was adamant and said, “I’m not.” And I didn’t go back. That was it. November 5 came. I started work the following day and that was that, really. I wish I’d just got the qualifications purely because it’s a dangerous job, this, isn’t it? But when I left, I never looked back again.’
Not looking back is something at which he excels.
You might think working for Nicholls — for whom he will ride Bravemansgame in the King George on Boxing Day — means a jockey spends his free time with his head buried in the form book, watching and analysing every move of every race.
Cobden will be riding Bravemansgame in the King George on Boxing Day this year
‘Do I watch racing?’ he reflects. ‘I might look at the results (on a day off), but I wouldn’t waste a day watching racing.
‘I’d be out going wherever I wanted to go. I’d always be doing something. I never just sit at home. I’ll go off with some mates for the day, have a drink. It’s all fairly relaxed,’
There is a lesson in here. Cobden, who first rode work for Nicholls when he was 13, has a natural gift in the saddle but he is smart enough to know there is more to life than racing’s bubble and the balance he has, arguably, enables him to perform to the highest possible standards.
He might get beaten on an odds-on shot, for example, but as soon as he is on the way back home, his mind will switch to his passion — and what he deems to be his ‘real’ job — of farming.
He won’t spend Christmas Day fretting about riding at Kempton when a herd of cows needs to be looked after.
‘When you get home, you’re not a jockey any more are you?’ says Cobden, who recently signed as an ambassador for Planet Sport Bet. ‘When I’m at home it’s only my old man (William) and myself and my brother (James). We’re beef farmers. That’s our business, fattening them up.
‘It’s something different, isn’t it? It’s relaxing. There’s something about being around animals. The stress of racing goes out the window, you’re on doing something in your own world and there’s a bit of normality. It’s freedom, isn’t it? I don’t have to be there but I want to be there.’
The paradox of this, though, is he also wants to be riding the biggest winners. After we spoke, he weighed in for five rides at Newbury. He’d walked the course earlier, done his research and was rewarded with a winner thanks to a perfectly timed run on the stout novice chaser, Brave Kingdom.
Cobden has a carefree attitude but can also switch on when he needs to
Cobden might have a carefree attitude and know how to switch off but he is a top-level sportsman and that doesn’t happen by fluke. He has ridden for Nicholls since 2017 and it is effectively like being a striker for Manchester United: if you don’t score goals, you will get sold.
‘There’s been lots of occasions in the last six years where he’s been p***** off with me and would just absolutely erupt,’ Cobden says. ‘What’s the point of me arguing back? I don’t retaliate – 30 minutes later you’ve got another opportunity to go and put it right.
‘In my opinion, having a row doesn’t achieve anything. Let him have his five minutes; in 25 minutes I’ll be back out having another go. But he’s the best trainer I’ve ever seen. I probably don’t appreciate this job as much as I should do.
‘Loads of good horses and loads of good winners? I’ve been in the right place at the right time. I’ve been very lucky where I’ve been. I’m riding the wave.’