Casting his gaze over the noble head of Bristol De Mai at Grange Farm Stables, Nigel Twiston-Davies exuded cautious optimism over the grey’s Randox Grand National prospects in what will be the first edition of the race staged behind closed doors.
The Covid-19 pandemic might have put paid to what would have been the top weight’s first attempt at the National 12 months ago, but Twiston-Davies thanks his lucky stars that owing to a huge combined effort within the racing industry, the sport has continued without issue through the winter lockdown.
A smattering of owners that are now allowed to attend Aintree will add a small voice to the occasion, but as far as the participants are concerned – be they trainer, horse or jockey – everything will pan out like any other day’s racing, with a tension you could cut with a knife as the runners assemble in front of the stands.
Twiston-Davies identified the class element that Bristol De Mai will bring to the National table very soon after he arrived at Guiting Power from France as an exciting juvenile hurdler.
He recalls: “He was sent to us by the owners as a three-year-old and we thought he was decent when he won the Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow. He went on to finish third at Aintree and went straight over fences as a four-year-old.
“I was going to run him in last year’s National and while that never happened, he’s been trained specifically for the race this time. We decided to give the Gold Cup a miss, and take him fresh to Aintree.
“He’s a very good jumper and Daryl (Jacob) was delighted with the way he schooled over a couple of dressed up fences here on Thursday. He had two goes and greatly enjoyed himself.”
It is interesting that each of the people most closely connected with the gelding on the training side of the equation are united in their view that he was in fact ‘made’ for the rigours the old course, with the Becher’s Brook drop, the towering presence of The Chair and generally far stiffer obstacles.
The design of the obstacles has been adjusted over the years, with every fence redressed with a plastic easy-fix inner torso that still catches out a number of horses, but for the overall good of the sport makes the fences safer.
Such a scenario did not greet Earth Summit and Bindaree for their Aintree triumphs of 1998 and 2002.
Twiston-Davies said: “The course has changed a lot over the years, which is a shame in a sense, as I feel the old National fences would have played to Bristol’s strengths. Since they redid the insides of the fences, it’s made the jumping side of the equation easier.
“He pleased me in each of his races this season. To win a third Betfair Chase like that was very special, and I thought he did nothing wrong at Sandown (when chasing home Native River) in the Cotswold Chase.
“I feel very lucky to have won two Nationals. Earth Summit surprised me a little, as I thought he might not be brave enough for it, but it was quite the reverse as it was his ground and it didn’t worry him one little bit.
“When Bindaree won I was contemplating my future as a trainer, and I suppose he helped me U-turn my decision. He was a horse with a lot of class, he took to it and in truth didn’t surprise me.
“We could have had a third success with Beau, who also had a touch of class and had won a Whitbread. He was travelling beautifully, but nodded on landing at the first on the second circuit and it caused the rein to go over his head.
“Carl (Llewellyn) tried to keep the steering intact for three or four more fences, but in the end gravity took over. Carl fell off and then tried to catch him, as he could have remounted. There was still plenty of time for him to win the race.”
Praising the combined efforts of everyone that has assisted in running racing, the trainer added: “I think it’s great for the sport that racing has continued unabated through the third lockdown, with not a single upset, which is the main thing.
“We don’t need anyone rocking the boat and it’s superb the way they have kept the show on the road.
“It won’t be the same without the crowds, but it’s the National – there only is one and it would have been a disaster to miss two.”
Llewellyn is business partner to Twiston- Davies at Grange Farm and partnered Party Politics as well as Earth Summit to Aintree glory.
He said: “Over the relatively new easy-fix with spruce fences, horses don’t have to be as good jumpers as they were to get round.
“I think Bristol De Mai will be fine. He finished third in a Gold Cup so is classy, and as an individual he’s very athletic, tall and has great footwork. He has a hell of a lot of scope, respects his fences and has the ability to both stand off and shorten up.”
The trainer’s ‘right hand man’ Jim Old is a permanent feature on the gallops, and since retiring from the training ranks has managed the interests of a handful of inmates at the yard.
Old is in agreement with Twiston-Davies that in one sense Bristol De Mai is a horse out of time.
He explains: “I only ever had one runner in the National, and apart from that had one beaten a short head in the Topham, so you could say Aintree wasn’t really my bag. But if you could pick a horse that would have all the attributes required for that course, then it’s Bristol De Mai.
“Without any doubt he would have been a wonderful horse for the old National course. But that’s in the past and he will still love it round there.
“If it stayed dry, it wouldn’t be too much of a worry because he’s won on it at Haydock.”