Yesterday, high up on Haldon Hill overlooking Exeter the mist rolled in as winter rainfall finally reached jumping racecourses after a frustratingly dry New Year, writes Tony Stafford. Shining through the murk as she always does and stealing the show was an old mare, nominally grey but in effect as white as the caps that J P McManus’s first strings sport on the racecourses of the UK and Ireland.
J P was cleaning up this weekend with a treble a day at Naas and Punchestown, but those exploits and the 3,000 and a fair few wins he already owns will hardly matter a jot if the said 10-year-old grand lady, Snow Leopardess to you and me, wins the 2022 Grand National.
Since 1839 when Lottery set the ball rolling in the world’s best jumps race ever challenged for, only 13 mares have won it. In the race’s early days there were loads, ten in the first 50 years. That makes it three – that’s right only three – in the next century and a third! After Frigate (number ten) in 1889, there’s only been Shannon Lass (1902), Sheila’s Cottage in 1948 and Nickel Coin in 1951.
Unless you’re almost as old as me you would not have been around for any of them – unlike me, here for the last two. But I hadn’t yet begun my interest in racing – that came with the following year’s King George VI Chase which we used to watch on my great-uncle’s television when we went to their big house at Christmas – so it starts with the Galloway Braes and Halloween battles between 1952 and 1954.
I suppose you can say I was as much brain-washed to county cricket at the Oval, football at Highbury, and racing everywhere from the early-1950’s to an extent that others might be fed politics of a certain standpoint and other life-defining attitudes.
Seventy years on, those three pastimes, nay obsessions, are intact and if anything reinforced by having had the opportunity to write about them. Thus when a Snow Leopardess comes along I think we should give full credit to the mare herself; the owners who bred her dam to a wonderful stallion, and her trainer Charlie Longsdon, who has guided her to an already exceptional series of achievements. If the final one happens, his role will only then be fully appreciated.
Charlie likes winning first time out with his horses – you only have to look as far back as Saturday at Warwick to see how Gaelic Park: “not really a bumper horse, more a galloper”, as he suggested, bolted up first time.
Two weeks short of six years ago, the daughter of the brilliant French jumps stallion Martaline made a winning debut at Doncaster, seeing off the heavily-backed Nicky Henderson-trained Rather Be. Charlie was Hendo-trained too – he was his former assistant.
There were a couple of highlights in her early days. One fifth place in the Aintree bumper spelt enough for her first season, but then she was shipped out first time next autumn for a valuable Listed bumper at Gowran Park and beat a Gordon Elliott mare and 18 others to pick up a €20k prize.
She was at it again at the end of that season, having in between won one minor hurdle race at Doncaster at 9/2 on. Here again she came home clear of a big field (16 runners this time) to win the EBF Mares’ handicap hurdle final at Newbury that March. The prize? another £22k.
Now, Snow Leopardess likes nothing more than winning first time sent to a new country, so after a six-month break Charlie despatched her to Auteuil for a conditions hurdle for, you guessed it, €21k. She duly beat seven rivals under James Reveley but unfortunately that’s where she sustained the injury that promised to end her career.
Snow Leopardess and her owners the Fox-Pitt family, though, do not believe in standing idle and, while recuperating, the mare was sent to Derby-winning stallion Sir Percy, the product of that union arriving early in 2019.
Amazingly, 26 months on from that ill-fated albeit winning trip to France she was back in action for a truncated twice unplaced campaign. She still the added one victory to her previous five in eight last term and also ran a remarkable race when finishing fourth in the National Hunt Chase, having lost her place when briefly outpaced on the faster than ideal ground. Nothing finished better than her as she chased 2022 Gold Cup candidate Galvin up the hill.
The story has developed apace this winter. After winning a nice handicap chase at Bangor – no she’d been there once before so the new country syndrome was not in operation this time – she then showed the most carefree disdain of the Aintree fences when dominating most of the three and a quarter mile Becher Chase in soft ground ten weeks ago. The Aintree run-in was another matter.
Her stride was understandably shortening in those last demanding yards but the nose by which she bravely held on was never more deserved. Switching back to a conventional three miles yesterday at Exeter for her first try at Listed class over fences might have been a pitfall waiting to happen but where her opposition of experienced and prolific-winning steeplechasers dropped away one by one, she slogged through the mud for a 12-length success.
A deserved increase (“not too high!” says Charlie) in her 145 rating should ensure she gets in the field come April and as Longsdon said afterwards: “We have to hope for a wet spring.”
Her career tally from only 19 starts is a remarkable nine successes at a rate that is very high up among the best products of Martaline. It would be very tidy if she could make it 50% at Aintree.
She jumped some of yesterday’s fences with feet to spare and I remember marvelling at the way she was clearing the fences in the Becher Chase. While not as formidable as in the bad old days, you still have to jump 30 of them and, Tiger Roll apart if he shows this time, there won’t be a horse better equipped to handle them, or the stamina test needed if it does turn soft.
As I said earlier, only three mares during the last 132 years have won the Grand National. Equally amazingly in its entire history only three grey horses have ever won it, The Lamb, twice in 1868 and 1871; Nicolaus Silver (1961) which my dad told me he’d backed after I got home from playing in the London Grammar Schools six-a side football championships at Chiswick that morning, and Neptune Collonges in 2012.
Snow Leopardess is already guaranteed one distinction if she does succeed. She’ll be the first grey mare to win it. Probably the early winning mares, namely Charity (1841), Miss Mowbray (1852), Anatis (1860), Jealousy (1861), Emblem (1863) or Emblematic the following year would have had other duties to perform.
Assuredly they would have been worked on farms, maybe pulled the milkman’s float or the brewer’s dray and then needed to be walked however many miles from their home base to Liverpool for their big race day. It could well be the case that one or more of them might have had a foal, but we can say for sure that Snow Leopardess would be doubly unique – the first grey mare to win the race and the first to add having a foal to that singular distinction.
As the enormity of the potential situation gathers momentum, rather in the manner of Andrew Gemmell three years ago when Paisley Park won his Stayers’ Hurdle, or through Rachael Blackmore’s domination of Cheltenham last year, you can expect a media barrage. Charlie, I hope you are ready for it.
Dermot Weld duly won with his Cheltenham possible Falcon Eight in his novice test at Thurles on Thursday. Having looked to have a lot to do half a mile from home, magically he had completely eroded the gap from the leaders in a trice. You were allowed to see just a glimpse of the class he showed in winning the Chester Cup off 104 last May and a little brushing up of the jumping technique could produce another giant step forward.
My friends who have the 33/1 run guaranteed for the Albert Bartlett on the Friday will be hoping for dry weather. The beauty is, having backed him for Thurles, they know canny Dermot will not let him run if it turns soft at Prestbury Park so they are in a win/win situation. Especially if he win wins!
Focus this week is on my long-term boss Raymond Tooth’s return to ownership with the Ian Williams-trained Glen Again who makes his hurdles debut at Fontwell on Thursday. If he runs as fast and jumps as beautifully as he looks – which the trainer suggests he might – Ray could have some fun for the rest of this season and for a few more. Fingers crossed, as they say!