Polly Gundry banking on ‘divine’ Santini’s class to rise to the top

Santini has always been considered an ideal type for the Grand National, possessing a touch of class to go with his stamina.

It was just over two years ago that the strapping son of Milan finished second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup for Nicky Henderson.

The 10-year-old, owned by Richard and Lizzie Kelvin-Hughes, is now again in the care of Polly Gundry, who broke him in and pre-trained him at her small yard near Exeter.

There are few better qualified to know the unique Aintree fences provide than her, fewer still who would elope to Gretna Green with a horse if they could.

“He is the most divine person – if he was human, I’d definitely marry him,” insists Gundry.

“He is so beautifully mannered, but he has got a bit of spark about him as well. He is charming.”

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He pays his way too, winning three times over fences and placed on another six occasions from 13 starts. He has never fallen or unseated his jockey, which will doubtless ease any concerns Nick Scholfield may have.

Though Santini is set to tackle the National obstacles for the first time, he has run at the Liverpool track twice before, winning the Grade One Sefton Novices’ Hurdle in 2018 and finishing a length runner-up to Lake View Lad in the Many Clouds Chase in 2020.

The switch in stables after being pulled up in the Gold Cup last year came as no great surprise, since he won a point-to-point for Polly’s husband, Ed Walker, before going to Seven Barrows.

“He has quite often come back to us at the beginning or the end of the season, just to be let down,” said Gundry.

“Richard Kelvin-Hughes has his young horses with us. We got to know him and I’ve always thought he was the most wonderful horse, even as a three-year-old.

“I think it was that I have always been a bit soft on him and I think Richard was soft on me by letting me have him.

“To be honest, I am really soft on a lot of them. I’ve spent a lot more time telling people to pat horses, because they are misunderstood. If you can get a horse trying for you, you are 98 per cent of the way there.

“Horses have to enjoy the job and enjoy life to want to try, and that is what I believe in. The horses have got to run because they want to do it. I can’t make them do it.”

Polly Gundry and Torduff Express jumps the last in the Fox Hunters' Chase at Aintree
Polly Gundry and Torduff Express jumps the last in the Fox Hunters’ Chase at Aintree (John Giles/PA)

There was a time when you needed an assured jumper, rather than an out-and-out stayer, to win the Grand National.

Over the years, in the interests of safety, modifications to the take-offs, landings and fences themselves have been made and yet while the race is not the severe test is was, it is still not for the faint-hearted.

Gundry is anything but that. Champion lady point-to-point rider eight times, she rode over 300 winners, with her most high-profile victory coming aboard the Paul Nicholls-trained Torduff Express in the 2002 Fox Hunters’ Chase over the same National fences, beating Gunner Welburn by 13 lengths so she knows what lies in store for Santini.

“I have been told they have changed a bit. The last time I rode over them was 2008 and they have made the landings and the drops not quite as substantial as they were,” said Gundry.

Santini was a Grade One-winning hurdler for Nicky Henderson
Santini was a Grade One-winning hurdler for Nicky Henderson (Julian Herbert/PA)

“I think it is now a fairly glorified handicap, but I think horses either love it or they aren’t sure about it, and the ones who are not sure about it are not going to relish four and a quarter miles of it.

“It is whether he takes to it on the first circuit. Hopefully, Nick will get him used to the fences for a circuit and we’ll ride a race on the second circuit.”

There was brief and premature talk of Santini being retired should he not show the zest that saw him finish third in the Albert Bartlett at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival or when a fine second to Topofthegame a year later in the RSA Chase.

He has always threatened to win a big one over fences and flashed that ability when landing the 2020 Cotswold Chase, before his neck second to Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup.

Santini was narrowly beaten by Al Boum Photo in the 2020 Gold Cup
Santini was narrowly beaten by Al Boum Photo in the 2020 Gold Cup (Tim Goode/PA)

However, he has not won since and is a general 33-1 chance for Aintree glory.

“Richard, Lizzie and I train him purely by committee, the three of us – and I am quite happy with whatever Richard Kelvin-Hughes is comfortable with.

“I think he was thinking Santini was probably too young to retire at nine, coming 10.

“So, he gave me an opportunity to see if there was a spark left. We both feel that Santini still enjoys it and has got more to give.

“He has had issues with his feet in the past when at Nicky Henderson’s, but they are okay at the moment. They are big feet and he has to have a lot of work, so they can suffer a bit. But we think they are good at the moment, so as long as that all stays together…”

Santini has won a Grade One at Aintree in the past
Santini has won a Grade One at Aintree in the past (Tim Goode/PA)

Many good horses have been defeated in the Gold Cup before going on to win at Aintree, such as Miinnehoma, Rough Quest and Many Clouds, and Gundry is hoping Santini will show that he is better than his eighth to A Plus Tard at the Festival last month.

“He is a very high-class horse,” insisted his trainer. “I was really happy with his first circuit in the Gold Cup because they all travelled beautifully and then on the second circuit, I could feel we were having to put a bit more pressure on than was comfortable going out on the second circuit.

“Then, of course, when they turned the taps on, they just flew away from him. My immediate reaction was, ‘Oh, I’ve made another horse slow,’ because that is what I think I do with them.

“But when I looked at the replays and listened to some of the pundits saying it was one of the slower first circuits of a Gold Cup, it slightly let me off the hook, as the race probably had not been run quite to suit him.

“I thought Nick Scholfield did a lovely job and looked after him when he realised he wasn’t in it, and popped him home.”

If he handles the fences, this classy staying chaser would appear to tick plenty of boxes and could place Gundry alongside alongside Jenny Pitman, Venetia Williams and Lucinda Russell as the only women to train a Grand National winner.

Nick Scholfield will again partner Santini at Aintree
Nick Scholfield will again partner Santini at Aintree (Steven Paston/PA)

Gundry added: “He has been bouncing and happy, and we think we’ve used the Gold Cup as a prep run for the National.

“I certainly think he is crying out for a trip, so that is a good reason to go for it.”

For Henderson, who has yet to win a National, a Santini victory would be as bittersweet as walking your daughter up the aisle to give her away.

Not that Gundry would mind. She would marry Santini in a heartbeat, if only she could.

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