To all those workaday jockeys who exist on fresh air for food and small print for public profile, Wayne Hutchinson should be an inspiration. He spent more than a decade in that anonymous majority, who seldom ride a fancied horse in a big race and never see their name in lights. Last spring, just past his 32nd birthday, everything changed.
In the space of a few golden weeks, Hutchinson rode a Cheltenham Festival winner on Medinas, registered his first Grade 1 victory on L’Unique at Aintree and crowned it all by winning the Scottish National on Godsmejudge.
Within the jump racing community, his capabilities had never been questioned but ability is one thing and opportunity quite another. Now, propelled to his overdue chances by the misfortune of a fellow jockey, Robert ‘Choc’ Thornton, and a late-season surge in form by his loyal trainer, Alan King, Hutchinson finally showed a wider audience what he could do.
“It was an amazing time,” he recalls. “I’d love to re-live any one of those days.” And he means it in a broader sense than mere personal gratification. Hutchinson’s career in racing may have been a slow burner but its fires have been stoked by the craving to prove himself to those closest to him.
His family is from north London, which explains his lifelong support of Arsenal, but Hutchinson has known nowhere but Swindon as his home. “My granddad moved here when Swindon became an overspill town after the war,” he explains. “Mum and Dad split up when I was only a few months old and I lived with my Dad on an estate.”
Though he has twice moved home, it has never been far and he is now back on that same estate where his father, Bill, delivers the mail every day. “He was a gas fitter for 20-odd years but when I was in junior school he became a postie,” says Hutchinson. “His round includes my house.”
It was football, far more than racing, which used to dominate the male half of the Hutchinson clan. Wayne was a decent full-back in his early teens and had hopes of being taken on by Swindon Town. “At 14 they told me I was too small, but what they were really saying was I wasn’t good enough,” he relates.
“Ever since then I’ve worried about being a failure. It might sound silly but I want to make my Dad proud. I didn’t make it as a footballer. I was determined – and still am – not to fail as a jockey.”
It was his mother, Leila, who helped him into an alternative sporting career.
“Mum always had horses around the place and when I stayed with her at weekends I learned to ride,” says Hutchinson. “After I’d finished with football I got a weekend job with Mark Usher, who trained just down the road from us, and it went from there.”
Hutchinson quickly formed a preference for jumping. “It was surprisingly easy to get over the football disappointment because racing in some ways was more exciting,” he says. “I’d only ever watched it on TV with Dad and there was an air of mystery to it.
I was determined – and still am – not to fail as a jockey
“I always wanted to go jumping but I was too small at first, so I spent a couple of seasons on the Flat. At first I could ride at 7st 9lb but I soon started to grow so I went to Stan Mellor, who was in his last couple of years as a jumps trainer. Stan was a great teacher. He would video all my rides, even if they were for someone else, then get me in the office and talk me through what I’d done right or wrong.”
When the quiet-spoken Mellor retired, Hutchinson made a move that would test and remould his character. Jeff King was training a small string at Broad Hinton, between Swindon and the Marlborough Downs. To put it mildly, King could be intolerant of jockeys who failed to match up to standards he had set in his own, formidable riding career. Nobody who took a job there, or even a ride for him, could expect exemption, but Hutchinson is not the only one who looks back on the regime with gratitude.
“Jeff was the making of me,” he says now. “I was soft. Jeff saw that and knew what he needed to do. You’d have lost count of the bollockings but he moulded me for what I’d have to face in the future. Thankfully, he never reduced me to tears but every day there made me more determined to show him I could do it the way he wanted.
“I had a very positive attitude to him and how hard he was. I knew he’d been a wonderful jockey and I came to see he was also a fantastic man. If I’d gone to Alan’s without that time with Jeff, I might have curled up. Alan’s bark is always worse than his bite but he’d let you know if you’d done wrong and Jeff prepared me for that.”
It had taken Hutchinson more than two seasons to ride his first National Hunt winner but the move to Alan King – oddly, his fourth racing job within a short distance of his Swindon home – was to stabilise his career. “I had an interview there one Sunday morning in 2002 and Alan asked me to start on July 1,” he recounts. “It was his second year at Barbury Castle, I was 21 and I’ve been there ever since.
“I’ve had one or two chances to go elsewhere as a first jockey, but you have to weigh everything up. Alan has been loyal to me and I like to think I’ve been just as loyal in return. He learned his loyalties from the Duke (David Nicholson). I remember he would always speak to him after racing and a couple of times, when I was in the car with Alan, we’d stop off to see him on the way home.
“Much of the way Alan operates is old-school, like the Duke used to do it. The day after I lost my claim I went in as usual to muck out my horses and found someone else doing them. My name had been taken off the work-board and I was on my own. It was a good feeling but also a bit scary – I wasn’t getting a wage any more.
“We’ve never had a written retainer or a contract and I can’t even say we’ve ever spoken about the arrangement in detail. I’m just pleased to have a boss who stands by me, gives me some security.”
Hutchinson accepts that his star has risen thanks in no small way to a spate of injuries suffered by Thornton. However, the idea that he has been blessed by fitness throughout his career is far from accurate.
“There have been three major injuries,” he points put. “I was only in my second year with Alan when I ruptured a kidney in a fall. Ironically, I was brought down when Choc fell on one of Alan’s. Something came from behind and kicked me almost to the next hurdle at Exeter. The pain was excruciating, the worst I’ve known, and they kept me in hospital down there for a week. It wasn’t just the first time I’d been hurt but also the first time I’d been away from home, so I felt a bit isolated.”
Four years later and Hutchinson suffered another ill-fated trip to Exeter. “My foot got caught in the iron as I came off and I was dragged along for 50 yards,” he relays. “I knew I’d done some serious damage to my left knee but the hospital in Exeter wouldn’t give me an MRI scan. At first, they didn’t even offer me a pair of crutches, just sent me home. I got up from the chair and tried to walk away but the knee gave way halfway across the ward and I hit the floor. They did let me have crutches after that and it got properly assessed by the physio at Swindon Town the next day.
“I’d done the cruciate and medial ligaments and, when I got to see a specialist, he told me I needed a complete reconstruction, which would mean six months off. It was the first week of December, a very busy time, so I turned it down and asked him to patch me up.
“I got back riding in the new year but it only lasted until the end of February. Another fall and it was gone again and I had to have the reconstruction. I don’t regret trying to put it off. When you have big races coming up, you will always give it a go.”
If that episode was symptomatic of every jockey’s blinkered attitude to life, the story of Hutchinson’s other severe injury perhaps says more about himself. “It was a May meeting at Ludlow and there was a bit of a pile-up on the home turn,” he says. “I’d clipped heels with a horse in front and, as I hit the ground, another horse stood on me. I knew my leg was broken, it was obvious, but I refused to go in the ambulance as I didn’t want to be stuck in a hospital miles from home. They put a splint on it and I spent two hours in the back seat of my car with my leg in the air while Richie Killoran drove me home.”
Home is quite definitely where Hutchinson’s heart remains. The houses he has lived in, the trainers he has worked for are all contained within a few miles of his upbringing. Now he lives with his partner back where it all began.
“All the family take an interest in my horses and both granddads put a pound on everything I ride,” he says. “Callum, my son, is 11 now and lives with his mother but I see plenty of him. We go and watch Swindon together and he’s started to ride well.”
Business as usual, whatever the fuss
Robert ‘Choc’ Thornton was appointed as first jockey to Alan King in the same summer that Hutchinson arrived at the yard and they have worked together ever since. Recently, much has been made of the perceived chemistry, some suggesting that Hutchinson is now on equal terms, but he does not see it that way.
“Nothing has changed,” he insists. “It’s all been taken out of context. There are plenty of rides to share and we have runners at two meetings every weekend.”
As for the notion that the two jockeys must be deadly rivals, Hutchinson laughs openly. “People read all kinds of things into it but we’ve never had a cross word,” he insists. “We’re good mates and get on great, both at work and socially. People may think we’re in competition but I’ve never looked at it that way. We’re part of a team, aiming for the same goals.
“I was still a kid, claiming 7lb, when I arrived at the yard. I’ve always looked up to Choc and, even now, I’ll ask him for help and guidance, but I don’t believe I’ve ever been in his shadow. Choc made it quite young and I guess I’m having my best years much later.”
Despite recent gains, Hutchinson has never lost humility or grounding. “I actually spent most of the summer labouring on a building site,” he reveals. “I was helping some mates with a conversion and I found it was something so different that I came back to racing refreshed.”
Though he should not need to consider retirement for some years, Hutchinson admits to apprehension, saying: “It does scare me. I haven’t got any qualifications to do anything else but I guess most jockeys say the same – it will be very hard to replace the excitement and enjoyment. You do need to make plans but, at the same time, I’m trying to put it off.
“I don’t set myself seasonal targets now. I did that when I was young and kept getting hurt. I’ve also tried to stop beating myself up when things go wrong. I can be my own worst critic but it’s not healthy, stewing on things. I tell myself to chill out. What will be, will be.”