AS a fresh-faced 17-year-old, Aidan Coleman moved to England in 2006, and found employment with Henrietta Knight. It is clear that Coleman and Knight had a good understanding of each other, and along with Terry Biddlecombe, the three formed a strong rapport right from the off.
“Once I arrived, I had a wonderful time with Henrietta and Terry, we just clicked. I learnt so much but in different ways. Henrietta gave me such an understanding from a technical point of view, what each horse in the yard liked to do, how they schooled, amount of work they needed/didn’t need, why you would run them at one track but not another etc, whereas Terry offered a different philosophy. He helped with the mental approach and mindset, the preparation of becoming a jockey, the routines to get into from a personal point of view ... they were a wonderful, a great combination, and they saddled my first runner for me. I am very grateful for the opportunity I had back then.”
Coleman rode his first winner under rules in October 2007 on board the Sarah Humphries-trained Tashkandi, and as Henrietta Knight was in the latter stages of her training career, and sensing it was the time to move on, he joined up with Venetia Williams.
Soon after, he started to taste success on a regular basis. The 2007-2008 season yielded 55 winners which saw him finish as champion conditional jockey, and in April, aged 19, he became one of the youngest jockeys of all time to have a ride in the Grand National on board Mon Mome, finishing 10th.
It is a race that he is quick to remind me that he has ridden in every year since, and one that with hindsight he suggests he has been lucky to have been a fixture in.
It was the same race a year later, and the same horse who was found in the winner’s enclosure, not with Coleman on board, but the late Liam Treadwell, as he recalls with searing honesty.
“Everything was going swimmingly to that point and I suppose this was the first time I got really annoyed and upset. In the build-up, Venetia was straightforward; she said I had the choice between riding Mon Mome again or Stan, and I just went with the latter - simply as I felt he had a better chance.
“In the immediate aftermath of Mon Mome’s victory I managed to forge a smile as I was happy for the team, but inside I was absolutely livid. I remember sitting there thinking to myself that I had the chance to ride the Grand National winner and I chose not to.
“For a while I was surly, like a spoiled child, and at the time it really got to me.”
However, 13 years on, Coleman reflects on those events with a greater sense of perspective, albeit the remnants of disgruntled sentiment still linger in his emotional backdrop when looking back at that result.
“I miss Liam, we all do. He was the perfect gentleman and a great friend, and I don’t begrudge him that success one bit. Though from time to time, naturally, my mind wanders, and I think that it could have been me riding the winner of the one race that transcends the sport; the one race that when I retire and whatever I go on to do I could carry with me.
“If someone asks me in 30 years’ time about having any success as a jockey, if I can reply with one sentence and the words ‘winning the Grand National’ then that will feel like the biggest accomplishment, something that I have ticked off in life rather than just racing if you see what I mean?”
We can all understand what he means, and there is no doubt there isn’t a race he wants on his CV more than the Aintree spectacular.
He goes on to add: “It’s funny, because this game can be a great leveller. I look back at that time with mixed feelings as only three weeks earlier I had ridden my first Cheltenham Festival winner” - on board the Venetia Williams trained Kayf Aramis in the Pertemps Final.
“I was on cloud nine after that, it’s amazing to go from those highs and then to times where you feel really low. I suppose it happens in all jobs and all walks of life, so as I have got older I have tried not to let things get to me when they don’t work out as they should, but really enjoy the good times.
“I don’t know for sure, but maybe scoring the winner in the FA Cup final or something like that would be similar, but there can’t be many jobs in the world that can produce the feeling I got when Kayf Aramis crossed the finish line in first place on that day.”
The word ‘opportunity’ is one that he frequently refers to and does so in glowing terms in reference to Venetia Williams.
“I owe so much to her for the opportunity she gave me. I am very thankful. She managed me, and was very good to me, it was more than just being a stable jockey for her and for that I am always going to be grateful. Racing has given me an opportunity that not everyone gets in life, and it can’t be said enough how much of a role Venetia played in getting me where I am today.”
The summer of 2015 provided a crossroads moment in his career, as Coleman got offered the position as retained jockey for John Ferguson’s short lived, but glamorous ‘Bloomfields Operation’ in Newmarket.
“I remember having the conversation with Venetia, and telling her that I would be moving on, but she was very understanding and grand about the whole thing. It was just a position too good to turn down so I had to go for it. It was a difficult decision as I absolutely loved my time at Venetia’s, but I remember thinking to myself that I couldn’t pass on this offer.
“I still rode winners for Venetia afterwards, so that connection wasn’t lost, but it was so exciting to be part of John’s set-up.”
It is a time that still sits fondly with him. His WhatsApp avatar is a photograph of himself pinging an obstacle in those instantly recognisable stealth-bomber-like Bloomfield silks. He goes on to divulge what it was like to be part of the set-up, still affectionately known to cult followers as ‘The Operation’.
“Ah look - that place was unreal. It wasn’t real life, it was like fantasy horse racing. You arrived at the yard, and there were stacks of Group 2 ex-flat horses ready to be unleashed in Fakenham novice hurdles - it was just amazing.
“Riding those horses was so exciting, and gets me excited looking back at it, I mean, I was rocking up to Hexham for a ride in a maiden hurdle, and I was sitting on a horse that had finished fifth in the Arc a couple of years earlier (Penglai Pavilion), it was just bonkers, I almost lost count of the amount of winners I rode.”
You can tell the quality of these horses really lit the fire of Coleman and he flags up one horse in particular, as one who lives long in the memory, but also one that ‘got away’:
“Maputo was rated 113 on the flat, and I had rattled up four wins on the bounce over hurdles, including when landing a listed race at Kempton without having to come off the bridle. I thought, ‘wow’, this lad could be really special, and at the time he was one of the best I had ever sat on.
“His next outing was in the Supreme Trial at Cheltenham’s November meeting, and I remember absolutely tanking round on the bridle for 95% of the race, and then just as we turned in, he changed his legs and then suddenly flattened out in the final 100 yards and I was beaten half a length. I was disappointed in the immediate aftermath, but then he pulled up really lame, and as it transpired, he had broken down really badly and unfortunately he had to be put down.
“Clearly unknown to me right at the time, but he had basically come up the Cheltenham hill on three legs. It was sad as Maputo could have been an absolute superstar. By the way, the horse I cantered all over on that occasion was decent - his name was Altior.”
Only six months or so into the job with Ferguson, Coleman got a message from his boss saying that ‘we need to have a chat’. Ferguson gave Coleman the heads up in advance that Bloomfields would be folding at the end of the season.
“I was just shocked, sad, frustrated and a little bit like, well what do I do now? I won’t lie, It took a while to readjust after that. It was one of the worst conversations of my career, if not my life.”
Coleman is very keen to put it on record that he doesn’t always feel Ferguson got the recognition he deserved as a trainer and labels him as a master “at getting horses who lost their way on the flat, back up and running again”.
A strong partnership with Jonjo O’Neill was forged in the aftermath of the Bloomfields set-up, a time in which he thinks was pivotal to developing his pure riding skills and tactics.
“I rode 113 winners in two years with Jonjo, but above all, he would be the most influential person I’ve encountered in my career with regards to getting me to identify how I want to ride. He is a fantastic tutor; an educator, he taught me about different riding styles and tactics and how to be much more patient during a race - he made me think more about the pace of races and how they would pan out - a good 10 years into my career.
“You can always learn so much from Jonjo. It is also through him that I made my connection with J.P. McManus, and of course that has led to me being in the very privileged position I am today, sitting on horses like Epatante and Jonbon.”
However, for the racing purist, the connection with Emma Lavelle, and specifically 2019 Stayers’ Hurdle winner Paisley Park is the cocktail that has taken Coleman to new heights and it really resonates with the public.
“That horse is a hero, what more can you say about him? As for Emma (Lavelle) she has always been great to me. Paisley is a horse who got me off a couple of ‘lists’ - it took me nearly 1,000 winners to land my first Grade 1 and he sorted that out, and when he won the Stayers’ Hurdle in 2019 that got rid of that hoodoo of going 10 years without a Cheltenham Festival winner!
“It probably tells you that I’m not that good and I’ve been around too long,” he retorts with a dry sense of humour underpinned by unwavering modesty.
There is no doubt that if Paisley Park comes with his trademark barnstorming run up the Cheltenham, the roar will be a cacophony seldom heard; the people cheering on the people’s horse.
It is also worth flagging up the rapport that he has struck up with the Henry de Bromhead-trained Put The Kettle On. The mare has an outstanding record at the Cheltenham Festival and one Coleman feels is a little overlooked: “She’s a terrific mare. She’s won an Arkle and a Champion Chase but hasn’t quite grabbed the headlines other horses might have done. Maybe it is because she is in the same era as Honeysuckle so her achievements have overshadowed what Put The Kettle On has accomplished.”
In time, perhaps we will all realise how well the two have done together - the record books and the Cheltenham Festival roll of honour will certainly show that.
At 33, all being well, there are many fruitful years ahead still in the career of Aidan Coleman, and his recent link-up with Olly Murphy is only in the embryonic stage, but he hopes can continue to flourish.
“Olly has a lot of quality young horses. Henrietta Knight started me off and maybe Olly will be the one to see me through to the end of my career.”
There are no plans for anything talk of retirement at present, but after a serious shoulder injury a couple of years ago, Coleman has had to re-prioritise his outlook, and is very much driven by riding quality over quantity these days.
“Summer racing just isn’t really my bag and I am not shy to admit that,” he states in a frank manner.
“I admire people who grind away - as I did for years - but as I have got older, I have had to look after my body more, and the sheer number of winners I am riding doesn’t mean as much as perhaps it used to, it’s about getting on board the top horses.
“I also like to have time to get away from racing - it can consume you. Naturally you take parts of your job home with you, but I’ve always been good at switching off from racing when my work for the day is done, and switching on Netflix instead!”
For now, the show goes on, and Aidan Coleman is very much a jockey playing a starring role, not one of the supporting cast.?
Aidan Coleman’s Cheltenham winners
Grade 1 Queen Mother Champion Chase, Put The Kettle On (2021)
Grade 1 Arkle Challenge Trophy, Put the Kettle On (2020)
Grade 1 Stayers’ Hurdle, Paisley Park (2019)
Major wins Britain
Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle, Epatante (2020, 2021 (2021, dead-heat))
Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle, Paisley Park (2018, 2020)