WITH snow still clearly evident at the hilltop Bingley yard of John Smith’s Grand National-winning trainer Sue Smith, the proud county of Yorkshire could finally welcome home an Aintree hero after a long 53-year wait.
The fact that remnants of the recent blizzards and snow drifts were still to be seen nearly two weeks later may have something to do with why it has taken the White Rose so long to conquer the world’s most famous steeplechase again. But Sue and her husband Harvey, the famous former showjumper, would never complain about their rustic surroundings at Craiglands Farm between Otley and Bradford, despite what the elements might throw at them.
But for the recent thaw, the Sunday morning press gathering may have been at a different yard just hours after Auroras Encore wrote his name into the history books, propelling young jockey Ryan Mania to stardom.
“Peter Buchanan (who rode Smith’s other runner, Mr Moonshine, in the National) came up here last week and it was like Siberia,” said Smith, whose 66-1 winner enjoyed a trip to pose for photographs outside the local pub.
“The snow is still here from two weeks ago. It held us up pretty bad, we couldn’t get very far and we’ve had frosts every morning. It was desperate. We had a racecourse gallop at Wetherby nearly two weeks ago and I took him to school at Malton on the Friday. Last Tuesday, Harvey managed to clear the gallops and we got a real good bit into him. That was the first time they’d been clear for over a week. In the end the ground came in his favour and that was the key.
“He seems well this morning, he’s eating well, his legs are sound and he’s quite chirpy.
“At the end of the day he pulled up a relatively fresh horse considering he’d been nearly four-and-a-half miles. He was feeling quite elated with himself.
“One of the owners said yesterday he can’t see why we wouldn’t go to the Scottish National and Harvey would always agree with that, but they’ve got me to contend with in the middle!”
It was only a fourth run in new yellow and blue colours for Auroras Encore, although there was no hint of resentment from his previous owners. “His former owners, Mr and Mrs Skene, had to sell him, through ill health really, as they couldn’t get to the races anymore,” said Smith. “Within 24 hours Jim Beaumont had rung us and then I spoke to him at Kelso a couple of days later when I said I might have a horse available, which was Auroras.
“They just rang out of the blue. They were looking for horses that could run in the Grand National and thought we might have one. They’d had horses with Lucinda (Russell) before. It was Mr Moonshine they were looking at originally and they purchased the pair of them. I spoke to the Skenes last night and they are delighted, but I’m sad it couldn’t be for them as they’re wonderful people and have had horses with us for donkeys years.
“We won the Perth Gold Cup for them with Aegean (2002), the Becher Chase with Ardent Scout (2002), they’ve had some lovely horses. I asked if they had a bit on but they didn’t.”
The last Grand National winner trained in Yorkshire was Merryman II in 1960 by Middleham’s Neville Crump, ridden by former starter Gerry Scott. Smith, who revealed it had been a quiet night on Saturday as “we’re past the stage of partying all night, so we made sure we got to bed!” said: “I hope this is a boost for northern racing.
“If there’s anyone that bangs the drum for the north, Harvey never leaves them alone. He works hard with Ferdy Murphy and the British Horseracing Authority to get more prize money and better class races as we have some fantastic tracks.
“It’s 53 years since the last Yorkshire winner. I saw Gerry Scott before the race when he reminded us of the fact and he said he hoped we’d win. I can’t believe we did.
“Nobody took into consideration that he had only just been beaten in the Scottish National. I suppose they were thinking Ayr is nothing like Aintree. There didn’t seem an anxious moment on the way round, and Ryan was in the perfect position throughout. The jockeys did seem pretty spread out yesterday.
“You can’t have a four-mile plodder, you need a turn of foot. He won at Aintree in the big two-and-a-half-mile hurdle five years ago and we ran him two days later when he was fifth. All being well he’ll be back next year.”
Harvey Smith has never been short of a word or two, yet despite his career in equestrianism, he revealed his ambition as a child was to win the Grand National.
“This is a pinnacle of a career,” he said. “When I was an 11-year-old boy I broke my arm and I was in Keighley Hospital where they gave me anaesthetic. I came round and the nurse gave me a sick bowl. I immediately put it on my head. They all asked what I was doing and I said ‘I’ve just won the Grand National’.”
Many would expect Harvey to feel too many changes had been made because of recent controversy, but he has been all for it. “Aintree have done a fantastic job. They’ve spent £1 million with all the change but a lot of foresight went into it,” he said. “I never feared for it (the race). You can’t listen to a load of wimps. They’d stop everything, they’ve tried to ban boxing and motor racing but the sports bodies get it as safe as they can.”