Two years after a drunken car crash in the early hours of Boxing Day that led to a prison sentence and threatened to end his riding career, Joe Colliver starred in a story of continuing redemption here on Saturday as his first ride at the course yielded his first Grade One victory, aboard Sam Spinner in the Long Walk Hurdle.
Colliver was jailed for perverting the course of justice after offering a friend £2,500 to claim that he crashed Colliver’s pick-up truck into a wall, when it was Colliver, who had twice the legal limit of alcohol in his bloodstream, who was behind the wheel. He was released in October last year after serving two months of his 10-month sentence, saying he intended to “rebuild my life and my career if I’m given the chance”.
With the support of Micky Hammond and Jedd O’Keeffe, Colliver has worked his way back onto the northern circuit. Sam Spinner, who was also O’Keeffe’s first winner at the highest level over jumps, now offers both jockey and trainer a chance to compete at the pinnacle of the sport, as he is now the clear favourite with most bookmakers for the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Sam Spinner ran away with a handicap hurdle at Haydock Park in November, and took the step up to this company in his stride. A habitual front-runner, he was going easily on the lead from the off and one by one, his rivals tried and failed to challenge for the lead.
After Unowhatimeanharry, the 6-4 favourite, started to drop away following a mistake two out, it was L’Ami Serge who moved smoothly into a position to challenge. He is well-known for finding very little off the bridle, however, and Colliver had more than enough in reserve to kick on again approaching the final flight on the way to a two-and-three-quarter length success.
Colliver said that he was in a daze after the race and the trophy presentation was delayed for several minutes as the word went out to recall him from the weighing room.
“I was just about in the shower, which is why I’ve not got the colours on,” Colliver said. “He raced a bit lazily and waited for something to come to him, and every time something did, he kept kicking on. I rode him first time in a bumper at Catterick and look where we are now. Each time I ride him he gets better and better.
“I regret everything that happened and the day I went to court I thought that was me as a jockey over and done with. I’d almost mentally prepared myself for that. I was lucky enough that my boss Micky Hammond stood by me and the staff and other trainers in Middleham.
“This is just a dream, to win a Grade One on my first trip down to Ascot, but the jockey can only do so much and you can’t do it without the horses.”
Lizzie Kelly, who will ride the 20-1 chance Tea For Two in the King George on Boxing Day, also rode her first winner here as One Of Us made all the running in the opening handicap hurdle.
Her next ride will be in the showpiece of the Christmas programme, aboard a horse that finished within four lengths of Thistlecrack in last year’s King George and took the Kauto Star Novice Chase over the same course and distance in December 2015.
“We’re pleased with him at home, he seems well and happy, and we’re going with a pretty live chance,” Kelly said. “I know he’s long in the betting, but he always is.
“Some of his best form is at Kempton. We’re up against really smart superstars, the front-page horses, but we’ve won there before and there’s no reason why he can’t win again.”
Nicky Henderson, whose Might Bite is expected to start favourite for the King George, also went into the brief Christmas break in winning form after Gold Present took the Lavazza Silver Cup Handicap Chase.