If there was ever a sport that required its participants to embrace the concept of delayed gratification, it is horse racing.
The seeds of success in this sphere are sown many years before harvest and even then, there is every chance of a bad crop.
Alex Hales took out his training licence in 2000 and whilst no one expects instant success in this industry, he probably did not think his first graded-race winner would be a decade and more in the making.
Smooth Stepper took the Grade Three Grand National Trial at Haydock in 2020 to meet that milestone, with For Pleasure and Bourbon Beauty both subsequently collecting Grade Two honours to keep the trainer’s eye in at the elite level.
All the while, however, there was a long game in play as Hales and his wife Sally considered potential mates for a broodmare called It Doesn’t Matter.
Pedigrees do matter in racing and Passing Glance was the sire selected, the dalliance between the two producing a colt they then named Millers Bank.
From the foaling box to the saddling box Hales was present, on hand as the now-gelded four-year-old made his racecourse debut in a Lingfield bumper and gradually progressed into a useful hurdler both as a novice and a handicapper.
There was a Grade One tilt in the Aintree Hurdle at the Grand National meeting last season and Hales, who knows the horse better than anyone, clearly knew better than those who formulated the bay’s written-off price of 80-1 as he came home an admirable third – beaten only three and a half lengths.
At the beginning of the current campaign a graduation to steeplechasing was afoot and when Millers Bank strolled to a neat win at Huntingdon in October, he looked like the figurative duck to water.
That victory earnt him a shot at the Grade Two Berkshire Novices’ Chase at Newbury in November, but the horse tackled the odd fence with undue caution and found himself unbalanced on the landing side, pitching jockey Harry Bannister out of the plate and gaining a UR on his record.
Next time out in the Dipper at Cheltenham a similar situation occurred, with Millers Bank adopting a praying mantis style of jumping that left his hooves too high to touch the ground before it rose up to meet him on the other side.
Another UR was added to his record. But Hales was undeterred and rolled the dice once again at the same level, this time in the Pendil at Kempton in February.
Having held his nerve and resisted the temptation to head back down the hurdling route, Hales’ faith was rewarded when Millers Bank this time jumped fluently throughout and came home just a length behind Paul Nicholls’ Pic D’orhy.
Back at Aintree on day one of the National fixture, a Grade One target again loomed – this time the Manifesto Novices’ Chase, a race in which Hales’ runner was not wildly fancied as he was sent to post at 7-1 in a field of six.
His position throughout the race was much more prominent, however, and he stalked the leaders under Kielan Woods and made just one sole error at the fourth fence.
This time jumping was undoing of his rivals as race favourite Erne River fell at the 10th and Pic D’orhy scuppered his own chances with a blunder five from home.
As the race neared its conclusion Millers Bank surged to the head of the field, taking up the lead two from home and striding on to a 10-length victory that brought all of Hales’ best laid plans to fruition at last.
“It’s quite emotional, it’s wonderful really. It took a long time to get here, it’s a massive team effort,” he said.
“Suddenly it gets you a bit, we’ve worked so hard for so long and to find a horse like this and do it here is wonderful.
“It’s massive because this is a hard game. It’s hard to compete at this level and to have winners anywhere. For small trainers like us, we’re working really hard every day so it’s brilliant to come here on the top stage and do it. Sally and I bred him as well, it’s quite an incredible story.
“We owned the mare and chose the stallion, we went to Passing Glance. We just believed in him and it’s just fabulous. Last year, when he was third in the Grade One Aintree Hurdle, I knew 80-1 was a silly price. At Huntingdon first time out this year I thought he was brilliant and then, it’s not supposed to be easy, this game, and the wheels came off a couple of times.
“David Fitzpaton, who rides him every day, sadly had a fall on Saturday and he couldn’t be here today and he has been saying for the last two weeks this is the best he has ever been so he was right. I’m looking forward to the replay!
“We’ve had an awkward year as the horses have not run half as well as I would have liked. We’ve had two really good seasons and this season it has just been harder. Whether the horses have been badly handicapped or not quite as healthy as we would have liked, but we have had a quiet spell.
“He will appreciate stepping up to three miles. I know he is quick over two and a half, but he will appreciate a trip and that will open up options next season. I don’t know if he could be a King George horse, that is dreaming. We will just take it step by step.”
The victory was not only a first Grade One for Woods, but a first graded race of any description and one that has required equal amounts of faith and patience.
He said: “I’ve not even won a Grade Two so to win a Grade One is just unbelievable.
“Alex Hales bred the horse, there’s not many trainers that have bred a horse and gone all the way from bumpers to winning a Grade One around Aintree. They’re a top-class team. I’m just so happy for Alex, he’s supported me for a long, long time.
“It’s brilliant to even be here, let alone riding a Grade One winner.”
He added: “I couldn’t believe how easily he was going. He came up out of my hands two (fences) out, and then I thought I’d definitely win. It’s an unbelievable feeling, that. It’s a bit weird for me because I’m not used to it; you almost feel like you shouldn’t be there. It’s so different – the kind of feeling you wouldn’t mind getting every day!
“This horse is as good a horse as I’ve sat on. He jumps, he travels, he’s so easy to ride – you say, ‘come here’, or ‘go on’, one or the other, with the jumping.
“He’s so much better today left-handed. The last day was different, because he had fallen twice and he needed a confidence-giving run, so we went out with that mindset, to pop around and get a clear round into him and see how we got on, and it definitely paid off today. Wow!”