'I can't keep the smile off my face': Owen hits crossbar on riding debut
Bruce Jackson witnesses the race-riding debut of a former footballing idol . . .
It was not of Wembley proportions, but a sizeable crowd turned up early at Ascot on Friday for the debut of a promising young amateur rider named Michael Owen, who had once been similarly heralded on the football field.
The ex-England striker was competing in the Prince’s Countryside Fund charity race over seven furlongs, just five months after starting his training in jodhpurs and riding boots at his Manor House Stables under the gaze of trainer and former jump jockey Tom Dascombe.
Under intense media and professional scrutiny Owen nearly produced a man-of-the-match performance as he finished second on Calder Prince after losing a short, sharp tussle with Tom Chatfield-Roberts on Golden Wedding.
Cheered on by his four children, Owen, 37, said: “That was such good fun. I had the time of my life.
“I'm really pleased with the whole outcome, and to get home safe and sound with the chance to learn a new discipline and the chance to lose a bit of weight!
“It's not been easy and I've lost 20lb in 21 days to do 12st. I'm going to stop off at every service station on the way home!”
Whether this was a one-off scratch of the itch to ride a winner remains to be seen, but Dascombe for one believes the near-miss will inspire the top sportsman to try again.
Owen, however, said: “I'm not sure if I'll do it again. It was great to raise the money for my four charities and I enjoyed it, but I think it is one of those things that either you do hundreds of times or finish after the one.”
He has so far raised more than £10,000 for Alder Hey Children Hospital, Manchester Royal Eye Hospital, Prince’s Countryside Fund and Prostate Cancer.
All ten competitors, who included Sheikh Fahad, were raising money for the Prince’s Countryside Fund, and Prince Charles himself was on hand to speak to the riders and present the prizes.
After being ponied to the start on Calder Prince, the only part of the game plan Owen failed to execute was the planned fast start.
He was quickly on the attack though and reported: “The horse was great and I was really surprised how quick we went early – it felt a right rate of knots and I got a lovely slip up the inside on the bend.
"I must admit I did think I might win when we were in front into the straight as my horse stays a mile, so I thought he would stay on – but he was not used to carrying so much weight!
“We had a head-to-head for a furlong but then he drew away and I had no powers to do anything about it. I have strong legs, but didn't have the strength at the end."
Owen said he was overwhelmed by the messages of support he had received through the last 48 hours, including from Frankie Dettori, Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty, as well as his footballing friends.
"It felt like I was going to play in another World Cup quarter-final against Brazil my phone was so hot with good luck messages," he said.
Winning trainer Eve Johnson Houghton wrote on Twitter: “Well done to Tom CR for winning the charity race on Golden Wedding. Sorry @themichaelowen for beating you. You gave it a great ride. Well done.”
Owen might have failed to enter the racing record books but was a winner for racing, as the media flocked to cover his debut and his 3.8m Twitter followers were kept informed about his performance.
Twitter, mind you, would not have made for overwhelmingly happy reading for Owen while tucking into grub at service stations on the way back to Cheshire, as he did take flack for not being as vigorous in the saddle as the winning rider.
But as any novice charity race-rider will tell you, it's the taking part that matters.
Look back on a sizzling year of racing in the new edition of the Racing Post Annual, which has 208 colour pages packed with the best stories and pictures of 2017. Order now at racingpost.com/shop or call 01933 304858