Lions to Roar in Haydock Trial

The Grand National weights were announced earlier in the week, and tomorrow Haydock host a Grade 3 trial over a gruelling trip of three and a half miles.

Run since 1947, with a short break in the 80s, the race tends to attract quality stayers, though doesn’t necessarily prove the best guide to the main event at Aintree. Moreover, the prevalent testing conditions tend to attract horses more suited to the Welsh National, held in mid-winter at an often, boggy Chepstow.

Nevertheless, several have run here after, or prior to, an assault on Aintree, with Neptune Collonges the most recent. He failed by a neck to take the trial in 2012, before winning a thrilling Grand National by the smallest of margins just a couple of months later. Mon Mome finished down the field here in 2009, before his incredible 100/1 shock victory in the ‘greatest steeplechase’.

In 1993 Party Politics captured the trial, though he somewhat put the cart before the horse, having won the Grand National the year before. And the greatest of them all, Red Rum, won the Haydock event in 1975, smack in the middle of his incredible period of Aintree success.

Other notable winners include Young Kenny, who went on to win the Midlands National and then the Scottish National, with all three victories coming in a two-month period. Master Oats captured this as an eight-year-old, before going on to win the Welsh National and then the Cheltenham Gold Cup. And Cool Ground landed the same trio between 1990 and 1992.

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That’s something of a snapshot of the history of the event, but serves to show the quality that is often required to be victorious here. And Saturday’s renewal looks a particularly strong affair, with several progressive types taking to the start.

There’s likely to be 14 runners, with last year’s RSA winner, Blaklion, heading the weights. He’s yet to enter the winners’ enclosure this winter, though this severe stamina test looks sure to suit. His run in the Hennessy looks a particularly strong piece of form, thanks in the main to the subsequent exploits of Native River. Rumour has it, that the ground may be no worse than good to soft on Saturday. That should be fine for the Twiston-Davies contender, though more rain wouldn’t harm his chances.

A pair of top-weights have won the race in the past 10 years. In all, five of the last 10 winners have carried 11 stone or more. Sue Smith’s Wakanda is next in the weights, and looked to be back to form when second to Definitly Red at Wetherby last time. That was a terrific performance, but my gut feeling is that this marathon test may stretch his stamina. He’s a very ‘forward going’ type, and I can see him wilting late on. I could be wrong, and 16s does look a generous price.

Vicente will certainly appreciate the trip, having won the Scottish National last April. He also ran well in last year’s National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham, but has proved disappointing so far this winter. He appears to need better ground to be at his best, though having got it last time at Doncaster, still ran like a drain. He’s a tough one to trust, though it would come as no surprise were he to run a huge race.

Vieux Lion Rouge looks sure to go well. He won the Becher Chase in December, and has a course victory to his name. He ran well for a long way in the Grand National last April when only a seven-year-old, and this trip should prove ideal. I’d be surprised if he didn’t go close.

Along with Wakanda, Sue Smith saddles Vintage Clouds, ridden by the prolific Brian Hughes. Seven-year-olds don’t have the best of records, but this fella was running a cracker last time when coming down at the third from home in the Peter Marsh. He’ll probably need more rain if he is to have a realistic chance, but he’s on an attractive handicap mark, and could go well.

Kerry Lee took the race last year, when Bishops Road coped with demanding conditions better than the rest. Goodtoknow takes his chance this year, though the progressive nine-year-old has been particularly busy of late. He was runner-up in the Betfred Classic at Warwick a month ago, and just a couple of weeks back won a handicap chase in heavy ground at Hereford. The Grand National in April is the target, and this may come a little soon after recent exertions.

Eight and nine-year-olds have the strongest record in recent times, and it’s several eight-year-olds that I expect to be battling out the finish tomorrow. Though I fear Vicente, especially if the ground runs no worse than good to soft, his poor run of form puts me off. His odds of 20/1 are extremely attractive, but this race tends to go to those showing strong recent form, and so I nervously ignore Nicholls’ contender.

Much the same can be said for Wakanda, though his run at Wetherby last time shows that he is at least returning to form. His odds of 16s make him an each-way proposition, and he’s another that I tentatively bypass.

I’m more than hopeful that it’s a pair of lions that will be scrapping over the valuable prize. I take Blaklion to get the better of Vieux Lion Rouge, and the pair to then contract considerably in the Grand National market. Both are currently available at 25s for the ‘big one’ at Aintree in April. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Mrs and Mr Smith – A Winning Combination

Sue and Harvey at work

Sue and Harvey at work

For the Jump racing fraternity, the Grand National remains the Holy Grail. Jockeys, trainers and owners alike, all dream of success in the World’s greatest steeplechase, and for those fortunate enough to reach the mountain top, the view is something to behold.

In April 2013 Mrs and Mr Smith caused one of the great upsets when training Auroras Encore to win the Aintree showpiece in quite stunning fashion. On closer inspection the horse should never have gone off at 66/1 having almost won the Scottish National a year earlier. But few spotted the vital piece of form, leaving the wife and husband combination the luxury of a peaceful preparation as the greatest day of their sporting careers loomed.

That’s pretty much how they like it, especially the cantankerous half of the double act. The straight talking Yorkshireman had his time in the spotlight and welcomes the opportunity of ‘just getting on with it’ without all the fuss and intrusion. It may be Sue Smith’s name that appears on the licence, but this is a successful ‘team’ in every sense of the word.

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Show-jumping brought the pair together, with Harvey in particular excelling in a career that brought a World Championship title and appearances at the Olympics of Mexico and Munich. Decades of experience are brought to bear, with Harvey having a keen eye for spotting talented youngsters. From then on it’s a pretty even split of responsibilities and labour.

Sue Smith has now been training for almost 30 years at Craiglands Farm, Harvey’s home for more than 50 years. Just north of Bradford on rugged moorland above Bingley the set-up is just as you would imagine. State of the art, it is not, but a farm converted to a thriving horse racing establishment. Graft and an exceptional knowledge of the horse, is what enables the Smith’s to maintain their level of success in an ever demanding sport.

In an interview with The Telegraph in 2014 Harvey spoke of the secret to their success, when he said: “We just buy a nice young ’un and bring him on. We don’t have to go and pay millions for the horses like all these southern lot are doing.” The statement sums up both the approach and the reality of competing with the powerhouses of the south; the likes of Nicholls and Henderson.

Nevertheless, the winners keep coming, and this season in particular has seen a return to form for the Yorkshire team. Recent weeks have brought a glut of winners including the terrific success for the yard’s young chaser Wakanda in the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle. Still only a six-year-old, the horse is now four from four over fences when jockey Danny Cook is on his back. It’s a partnership that is thriving, and with favourable testing conditions the horse looks set to win more high-profile staying chases.

Along with Wakanda, Smith will remain hopeful that Blakemount can reach his full potential. Terrific over hurdles, he was injured before his chasing career had hardly begun. His return this winter has so far proven a little underwhelming, though his last run at Carlisle was on unsuitably heavy ground. If he can be kept fit and well, he has the talent to become a success, especially in less testing conditions.

Cloudy Too is another with far more talent than he is currently displaying on a raceday. Some way behind Wakanda at Newcastle, his handicap is gradually coming back to a workable mark, and coupled with a step back in trip he could well be an interesting proposition in the coming months.

At the weekend No Planning appeared to struggle with the Aintree fences when coming down at the Chair in the Becher Chase. He was a well-fancied second favourite for the race, and back on a more forgiving track the eight-year-old looks sure to get his head back in front. His record over fences remains a strong one, and he’s another that now appears to have a tasty looking handicap mark.

They may have been in the game longer than most would care to mention, but Mrs and Mr Smith remain as passionate about horses as ever. Continued hard graft along with a large slice of expertise look set to ensure continued success for a good while longer yet.