Scottish trainers will be strongly represented at Ayr on Sunday as they try to keep their own Grand National trophy at home for the first time since 2012.
Harriet Graham’s Aye Right is ante-post favourite for the Coral-sponsored showpiece, but must concede weight to all his 22 opponents following his string of placed efforts in hugely-competitive races.
Graham trains a small stable of eight alongside her role as clerk of the course at Musselburgh and Perth, and has overseen the Ayr showpiece herself too when covering for maternity leave.
The Jedburgh handler describes Aye Right as “the star of the yard”, although victory has eluded the eight-year-old this season despite his series of gallant performances.
Aye Right was third behind Cyrname in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby, second in Newbury’s Ladbrokes Trophy and again runner-up in Doncaster’s Listed Sky Bet Chase.
Also third in the Ultima Chase at Cheltenham last month, he is one of nine Scottish-trained runners in this weekend’s big handicap.
Aye Right’s rivals travelling north include Sue Smith’s surprise Ultima winner Vintage Clouds and Brian Ellison’s Eider Chase hero Sam’s Adventure – as well as Paul Nicholls’ Soldier Of Love, Dan Skelton’s Oldgrangewood and Notachance from Alan King’s yard.
“I’m really, really proud and privileged to be training him,” Graham said, on a call hosted by Great British Racing.
“Let’s remember his owners, Geoff and Elspeth Adam, who are Scottish as well – and Geoff has had horses in training in Scotland for many, many years.
“He’s right behind keeping his horses in Scotland to be trained – he’s been incredibly loyal to me and to the jockey, Callum Bewley, who’s also Scottish.
“I’m probably the least Scottish of the lot of them, having been brought up in Devon, but I have lived in Scotland now longer than I’ve lived in England.”
Graham will be up against some of the most powerful yards in Britain – but she believes running a smaller operation has its benefits, and is not intimidated by her high-flying opponents.
“We’re taking on the people with the numbers, which we obviously haven’t got,” she said.
“I think small trainers can give the individual horse much more hands-on contact – I don’t think anybody should ever be frightened of going to Cheltenham or Aintree from a small yard if you’ve got a good enough horse.
“We are doing it as a smaller trainer because we want to stay small – we don’t want large numbers.
“I want to know my horses and I want to know my owners really well. It’s just a different model of going into it.”
The community surrounding Graham’s yard is equally engaged in the success of Aye Right, having followed his near-misses – and he will be well supported as he looks to return the title to Scottish soil.
“It’s a real racing area here, and everyone’s into their horses,” she said.
“They’re all asking after him and saying he deserves to win one.
“When you look at his form he definitely does – there’s a really nice, good feeling behind him.”
Although Graham is naturally hoping Aye Right can cross the line in front, she would be delighted with any Scottish winner – and, with a smile, even served up a cheeky reference to home domination akin to last month’s Irish success at Cheltenham, which caused such consternation for many in Britain.
“It would be lovely if it was Aye Right – but it would be lovely if it was another one of the Scottish trainers as well,” she said.
“Maybe we could have the one-two-three-four – with Aye Right number one!
“That would be a good headline, ‘What are the English going to do about the Scottish runners?!'”
Prominent among others capable of delivering a home victory is Lucinda Russell, who runs both Mighty Thunder and Big River.
Kerry Lads was second for the Kinross trainer back in 2004, and she would love to go one better.
“When I first started training back in 1995 it was always the aim,” she said.
“It’s a race over four miles, and I tend to train stayers – even back in those days – so it was always the aim for the horses.
“Kerry Lads got us very close. He was second and placed a couple of times, so it’s always been an aim.
“I think it’s a race that would just complete my CV. It’d be rather nice.”
Merigo provided the most recent home win, taking the race in 2010 and 2012 – and before that, Scottish trainers had been out of luck for decades.
Russell, who became only the second Scottish trainer to win the Grand National at Aintree when One For Arthur prevailed in 2017, has since noticed an increase in investment in the racing industry north of the border.
“I do think that four or five years ago, racing was really in the doldrums up here,” she said.
“I think it’s really picked up – we’re attracting a lot more media exposure, which is great.
“The owners have invested money in really nice horses, (and) the trainers have upgraded their facilities.
“It’s not just going to be this year. I think in the future you’ll find a lot more Scottish influence in the Scottish National and in the big handicaps.
“It’s fantastic and it’s credit to the owners who stick with us and look after us and keep investing in horses with us.
“Hopefully it’s the start and it will continue – and it won’t be long before we have more Scottish winners of the Scottish National and of the other big races down south as well.”
Russell has also noticed an increased sense of camaraderie between northern and Scottish trainers, particularly after her 66-1 success with Ahoy Senor in the Grade One Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree.
“I think that there is a really good bond between the Scottish trainers and the northern trainers, and there’s quite a buzz about the place,” she said.
“When you have a winner at Aintree in a Grade One and your peers come up and say well done to you, rather than being too competitive about it, I think it’s just a better feeling. Is that (as a result of) Covid? I’m not sure, but I think it might be.
“We’re a little bit more emotional and a bit softer about things, realising that we’ve got to do it for the good of the sport up in here in Scotland.
“We’ve got to keep supporting it and promoting it, whoever it is that’s doing the promoting.”