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Aye Right leads Scottish charge in search of home National victory

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 (right) finishing second behind Cloth Cap in the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase at Newbury Racecourse
Aye Right (right) finishing second behind Cloth Cap in the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

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.

Mighty Thunder, ridden by Blair Campbell, on the way to finishing second in the Marston’s 61 Deep Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter racecourse
Mighty Thunder was runner-up in the Marston’s 61 Deep Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter (Mike Egerton/PA)

“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.

Grand National winner One For Arthur pictured with Lucinda Russell at her yard in Kinross, Scotland
Grand National winner One For Arthur with Lucinda Russell at her yard in Kinross (Ian Rutherford/PA)

“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.”

Crosspark still at height of powers for Eider defence

Caroline Bailey is confident Crosspark is as good as ever as he prepares to defend his Eider Chase crown off top weight at Newcastle.

The 11-year-old won the last running of the Vertem-sponsored handicap by just a neck in 2019, defeating Michael Scudamore’s Mysteree, and is vying for favouritism in this year’s renewal.

Crosspark has not tasted victory since, with a repeat performance in 2020 ruled out when the fixture was abandoned, but he was second in the 2019 Scottish Grand National and has also finished runner-up in all of four outings this season – no more than a length behind the winner on each occasion.

“He’s been in as good a form as ever,” said his trainer.

“You can’t knock the horse at all – he tries his little heart out.

“I’m very happy with him. He had a little break after Sandown (runner-up in the veterans’ final early last month), and we freshened him up.”

Tristan Davidson’s The Dutchman also lines up this weekend, having last been seen taking a late when leading into the straight in the Grade Three Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase at Wetherby on Boxing Day.

Davidson reports the 11-year-old, winner of the 2018 Peter Marsh Chase when with Colin Tizzard, to be in good form at home.

Davidson is hopeful rather than certain he will handle this extended trip, however.

The Cumbria trainer said: “He’s well – Sean Quinlan came and schooled him the other day, and he schooled well.

“We’re hoping for a big race. He was unlucky at Wetherby, but that’s racing – he was going well that day.

“The ground won’t bother him at all. I just hope he stays four miles one (furlong), that’s my only doubt.”

Tom George is represented by Springfield Fox, who will run in cheekpieces after being pulled up in both the Welsh Grand National and on his subsequent appearance in the Dick Hunt Chase at Wincanton.

George said: “It’s been a bit frustrating for him this season – because he had a good run over hurdles, and then in the Welsh National he was always going one stride quicker than he wanted to.

Springfield Fox ridden by Jonathan Burke jumps the last to score at Chepstow Racecourse
Springfield Fox and Jonathan Burke jump the last to score at Chepstow (Simon Cooper/PA)

“We needed to run him again, and the same thing happened at Wincanton.

“I’d like to think a pair of cheekpieces will sharpen him up, and he shouldn’t be out of his comfort zone over four and a quarter miles.”

Lucinda Russell’s Big River also takes his chance, having finished eighth in the Welsh National in January.

Russell considers the 11-year-old to be in better shape than he was before that run, and expects him to be suited by the marathon trip.

“He ran a good race in the Welsh National, and I think he’s better now than he was before then,” she said.

“They’re probably his sort of conditions. Four miles is his sort of trip – and if the ground is soft enough he could run a big race.”

Grand National-winning trainer Lucinda Russell has two chances in the Eider Chase
Grand National-winning trainer Lucinda Russell has two chances in the Eider Chase (Ian Rutherford/PA)

Russell has also entered outsider Haul Us In, absent since finishing sixth at Bangor in November and who runs from 4lb out of the handicap but has Blair Campbell’s claim offsetting 3lb of that off bottom weight.

Russell said: “She’s been unfortunate – she’s missed a few races because of the weather.

“Ideally she’d have run at least another once, if not twice, before coming into this race.

“We decided this was going to be our aim for her for this season.

“We’ve been brave and put the entry in and tried to get her as right as we can at home. She’s probably got a chance at a big price.”

Brian Ellison’s Sam’s Adventure heads the market, with David Bridgwater’s Salty Boy and Matt Sheppard’s Cyclop also at the top end of the betting.

Paul Henderson runs Crossley Tender, with David Pipe’s Little Red Lion, Ian Duncan’s Strong Economy and Martin Smith’s Friends Don’t Ask completing the field of 12.