James Tudor, who was champion jockey in 2007 and retired in 2015, was renowned for being one of the most stylish point-to-point riders of recent times. Best known for his associations with Alan Hill and Evan Williams – to whom he was assistant trainer for almost a decade – he rode over 250 winners between the flags and over 30 under rules, including partnering High Chimes to win the Kim Muir Chase at the 2008 Cheltenham Festival, the same year he was second in the Foxhunters on Bon Accord. Jake Exelby – for whom James used to ride Broken Eagle in his early career – caught up with him to reminisce about the Welsh weighing room banter and to find out what he’s up to now.
How did you get into point-to-pointing in the first place?
I’m from a rural background, near Bridgend in the Vale of Glamorgan. My parents were both from farming stock and horses were always part of the family. My Dad’s father had horses in training, pointers and flapping ponies and my Mum’s father trained under permit. My Dad rode, as did Jonathan (cousin to James’ father Will, and himself father of riders Jack and Harriet Tudor) so I wasn’t pushed into it – it was in my blood. I was taken to points as early as I can remember and, when I turned sixteen, it was my turn! Maybe one day my children Bella, who’s five and already has a pony, and Ted – who’s nearly three – will ride too.
My first ride was for my uncle in a Maiden at Erw Lon in 2000, on a mare called Spot On Millie. She was making her debut too and we pulled up. My second was in the next division of the same race, on Mecca Prince for my grandfather, and we won. I remember that day well.
How did your career take off from there?
At the time, a lot of people in Wales had one or two horses in training and it was great for people like me who were starting out. I had some connections and had about 30 rides in my first season, which was the year before foot and mouth. I really got going in 2002, when I went to Reading University to study Land Management. I knew Tim Vaughan, who’d been riding for Alan and Lawney Hill and he suggested I ring them up – I did, and they asked me to come and ride out. They were going through a transition phase at the time with no stable jockey, a few owner-riders and lots of young horses coming through, and we just clicked. I only rode one winner – Bolide Du Aunay – for them in my first year but, as their yard strengthened and the young horses fulfilled their potential, I was drawn more to the South Midlands.
James in action for Alan Hill at Kingston Blount (photo - Neale Blackburn)
I used to ride out for Evan Williams when I was a teenager, when he was training some good horses for owner Bob Mason – that’s how my connection with him started. And my first big pointing win was Unmistakably – in the 2006 Lady Dudley Cup – for Evan’s wife Cath. He was a weapon, a really good pointer.
Who's inspired you most in the world of pointing?
It would be obvious to say Alan, Evan and my family – my Mum Anne used to be a jockey coach – but I think it was the Welsh changing room in the early to mid-1990s when I was a kid. I used to go in there with Jonathan and you had the likes of Dai Jones, Tim Jones, Jamie Jukes and John Llewellyn. The banter was captivating and I wanted to be a part of it.
Which jockeys do you most admire? Why?
When I was riding, Julian Pritchard, who was coming to the end of his career when I started being successful and Richard Burton, who was phenomenal. He was stylish, didn’t make mistakes and I don’t think I’d have been champion if he hadn’t been injured. I also had huge respect for Richard Woollacott, who was fiercely competitive.
Nowadays, it’s great to see Bradley Gibbs having success and you’ve got to admire Gina Andrews. It’s phenomenal what she’s done and she’s so strong. And of course Will Biddick, who seems to have been around forever, although I didn’t ride much against him. It’s definitely more professional now and the standard of riding has improved.
Why do you think there have been so many good Welsh jockeys coming from the pointing arena over the years?
Initially, there were always lots of horses, so lots of opportunities to ride, which brings out the best in people. More recently, pony racing has helped, as you have to both have good ponies and be able to ride well to compete. However, it’s detrimental to the atmosphere in the changing room when jockeys don’t hang around long (before turning professional).
Who have been your favourite horses?
It would be wrong to just mention one and I was lucky to ride so many good horses. I’ve mentioned Mecca Prince and Unmistakably. For Alan, there was Harbour Court – the best I rode for him – Bon Accord, and Mister Splodge and Start Royal, who were real characters. Of the Welsh pointers, there was Rosies Peacock and – under rules – High Chimes and State Of Play, who I looked after at Evan’s and once rode at Aintree (the year before the first of his three placings in the Grand National).
James after winning on Harbour Court at Kingston Blount (photo - Neale Blackburn)
Which are your favourite courses? Why?
Kingston Blount, because it was idiosyncratic and I rode a lot of winners round there. I also enjoyed riding at Howick and Black Forest Lodge and Cottenham early in the season – anywhere I had success, really!
James after winning on the author's Broken Eagle at Cottenham (photo - Richard Weller-Poley)
What was the highlight of your time as a jockey?
There were a few. Being national champion in 2007, winning the Kim Muir the year after, winning the John Corbet on Harbour Court and riding round Aintree.
James celebrating after winning the Kim Muir on High Chimes
Why did you retire?
I was lucky that I didn’t have to finish because I got hurt, or too heavy. The travelling was getting too much, and (wife) Hannah and I wanted to start a family. I also used to pride myself on my fitness, which wasn’t the same in my last season because I was sitting behind a desk rather than working for Evan!
Evan Williams - James' boss
What do you love most about pointing?
The atmosphere, which is competitive but relaxed at the same time. I also like racing on different types of track every week, as most rules courses are quite similar. When I was riding, I loved that if I knew the track or rode with your brain, you didn’t need to be on the best horse to win.
What's been your personal funniest moment in the sport?
There are a few you can’t print! One that everyone else thought was funny, but I didn’t, was when I was riding a maiden one day at Erw Lon. She was reluctant to go to the start, so I took both feet out of the irons and gave her a kick. Both reins snapped, she bolted and I had to jump off!
Racing at Erw Lon (photo - Alun Sedgmore)
What changes have you seen during your time? For better, for worse?
How much more professional the sport has become is both good and bad. The quality of riding and training is better – it’s created an industry that people can make a living from – as are the courses, the facilities and safety. But if we’re not careful, this could be detrimental, with smaller operations less inclined to have a go. The sport needs to be open to everybody – the big stables didn’t exist previously and we need to accommodate one and two horse yards too.
What would you do if you were in charge of the sport?
Something that really gets my back up is prize money. The sport is amateur in name only and a lot of people make a good living. With costs going up, it’s not right that Harriet is racing for the same money as my Dad. People who used to be in pointing syndicates are going under rules with prize money of £2,500 rather than £200. Why can’t a sponsor put on a race worth – say - £5,000? Why can’t we let the Hunts do what they want? I don’t buy the arguments against it and have been saying this since I was riding.
How are you involved with pointing these days?
I help Harriet by giving her information and walking the courses with her, I’m assistant starter at the Llangeinor, a judge at the Glamorgan and I’m on the Race Programming Committee. My day job, which I’ve had since I left Evan’s in 2015, is as an agent and group secretary for the National Farmers Union, selling insurance, looking after accounts and looking after its members.
With horse numbers at their lowest ever level, what are your concerns about the future?
I’m not a pessimist by nature, but I’m concerned about the sport in Wales. We’ve got a great offering and the general public love it, but we need to put some thought into it and not just carry on as we are. Hunting is important and it’s not in a great place in South Wales – putting on a meeting is an effort and without hunting and its volunteers, pointing would stop. There are solutions, but we need to plan for the future and think about pointing in a post-hunting world.
What are your non-horsey hobbies?
The kids, to be honest! As they get bigger, they demand more time and I find myself acting as a taxi driver between swimming, pony club and parties!
Who is your non-racing hero?
I love an underdog story, people who’ve achieved against the odds. So I’d say (former Welsh rugby winger) Shane Williams who was small, but a true great.
Shane Williams - hero
Who are your favourite authors and bands?
I’ve read practically every Wilbur Smith book. I don’t own a single CD or have any music downloaded to my phone, but we have Alexa at home, so we listen to anything from Meatloaf to Les Miserables. Hannah is playing The Vengaboys’ We’re Going To Ibiza to the kids at the moment!
Vengaboys - favourites of James?
Where is your dream holiday destination?
We went to Kenya on safari on our honeymoon and, if I had one holiday left, I’d do it again.
Kenyan safari - honeymoon
How would Hannah describe you?
Easy-going, relaxed, still competitive and stubborn. Yes, I know some of these are contradictory! On race days, I was withdrawn, focused and competitive – I could be quite irritable but, to be a good sportsman, you have to have an element of selfishness. I’m definitely a different person now.