Sean Bowen: The champion jockey frontrunner who is allergic to horses

Sean Bowen - Sean Bowen: The champion jockey frontrunner who is allergic to horses
Sean Bowen is now close to being the fittest jump jockey out there - Debbie Burt

It could be one of sport’s bigger ironies; that the man blazing a trail in the jump jockeys’ championship is allergic to horses. But maybe wanting to get off them quicker is why Sean Bowen, in search of his first title, is some 30 winners clear of his nearest rival heading into the busy holiday period.

“When I was little I had bad eczema and asthma and if Dad came in from clipping the horses, I’d be itching for days,” he says.

“When I’m riding in a race now I’m not on one long enough for it to affect me, but if I’m brushing one or with them all day I’ll be sneezing, and my eyes will be watering.”

This was meant to be the point in the season when the pack started closing in on Bowen after a fruitful summer and autumn but, as that has rolled into wet winter in this little hunt, just when the scent should have been getting stronger the fox seems to be getting away.

Another irony, not lost on the Welsh jockey who has already posted 120 winners this season, is that, as a 3lb claimer, he was recalled to the British Racing School in Newmarket from Somerset, where he was attached to the Paul Nicholls stable, to retake a fitness test.

He is now close to, if not the, fittest jump jockey and on a rare day off last week when Ffos Las was abandoned he was in the gym at Oaksey House, the Injured Jockeys Fund rehabilitation centre in Lambourn, an hour from his home near Bath, rather than resting up.

“I think I failed half on fitness, half on attitude,” he recalls of that fateful day in Newmarket even though, like the Moore family, the surname Bowen is a byword in the sport for hard grafter. “I was annoyed to be there and to have had to drive all the way from Ditcheat for something I didn’t think I needed to do.”

Sean Bowen - Sean Bowen: The champion jockey frontrunner who is allergic to horses
Until he was 12, becoming a jockey had not even crossed Bowen's mind - Debbie Burt

But his father, the Pembroke-shire trainer Peter Bowen, had always drilled into him and his younger brother James, who won the Welsh National aged 16, and older brother Mickey (with Willie Mullins before returning home to help his father) that they would have to be fitter than everyone else to succeed.

“When we were pony racing he sent us up the all-weather gallops; we were doing two canters a day,” he says. “But I realised how good the facilities in Oaksey House were when I broke my collarbone for the first time. It’s all set up for jockeys and their fitness and when I left Paul’s after four years, I was riding similar amounts of winners, 50-55-60 a season, and I wanted to be doing better, so I started back in the gym.”

On top of that, he sleeps with his mouth taped up so that he breathes through his nose after listening to podcasts on the subject. “I think it’s healthier for you,” he says. “The air is filtered better. My snoring isn’t as bad as it was, that’s for sure. It’s lots of little things, and if you’re eating healthier and fitter it’s sure to help.”

Another crucial factor in his quest for his first title is that he has gone down the full Sir Anthony McCoy route of surrounding himself with good people; a good agent in former weighing-room colleague Alain Cawley, his girlfriend Harriett Matthews is, essentially, also his personal assistant, and he has a driver.

“My sole job is to concentrate on the riding. Last week I rode at Plumpton, Fakenham and then Ayr. Then Uttoxeter and Haydock. I don’t know how I ever did it without a driver,” he says.

Sean Bowen - Sean Bowen: The champion jockey frontrunner who is allergic to horses
Bowen has already posted 120 winners this season - PA/Simon Marper

It is a wise approach from someone who, in terms of academia, never even sat his GCSEs. “I hated lessons but liked my mates,” he recalls. “But I was always getting into trouble through boredom. Mum [a successful point-to-point jockey herself] always used to say she didn’t know how I was getting into such trouble when she picked me up from detention. ‘He’s such a quiet boy,’ she’d say, ‘I can’t understand it.’”

From year nine, he was home-schooled four times a week after riding out. Until he was 12, becoming a jockey had not even crossed his mind. But beginning with a lazy pony on who he and James did time trials up the gallop to see who could get him going fastest, he started in pony races.

The family bought an unbroken horse who had not grown and the animal in question, Cudlic Verona, became the best racing pony in the country. Bowen graduated to pointing-to-point and was champion conditional jockey in his first season with Nicholls.

“I felt sure when James started he’d be way better,” he says. “He had longer on ponies, had six rides in a point-to-point on his 16th birthday, rode a double or treble and was champion novice with 25 winners between March and the end of the season. He was all the rage.

“He has been a bit unlucky with injuries but he’s brilliant at getting horses to settle. You never see them pull with him.”

Success for Bowen also means success for Olly Murphy, the young Midlands trainer to whom he is attached, and, although this season the focus is on quantity over quality, he is sure the good horses will come for him, as they will for Murphy. “We’re both young, we’ll build together,” he says.

Besides a determined shot at the title, which will include him chasing winners on Boxing Day away from the spotlight of Kempton – a full book of rides at Aintree’s new Christmas fixture – he is, he says, a Grand National rather than Gold Cup man.

“Even when I didn’t really enjoy racing [as a child] it was always Aintree for me,” he says, aptly. “Dad’s ambition was to win it and once we started riding, his ambition has been to win it with one of his boys riding for him. He’s won the Topham Chase five times and winning that for him on Mac Tottie [in 2022] was the best day of my racing life so far.”

For the jockey who is allergic to horses, winning the National for his father is another itch to scratch.