Some 28 years ago a fresh-faced lad from Lanarkshire fetched up at the Cree Lodge stables of trainer John Wilson, just across the road from the main entrance to Ayr racecourse.
Yesterday afternoon, looking much younger than his 46 years, Alan King became the king of the Craigie track when his spectacularly-jumping steeplechaser Godsmejudge turned the Coral Scottish Grand National into something of a procession.
In front of a record 19,000 crowd – 2,000 more than the previous record set in 2002 – a Scottish trainer won his home National and King made no attempt to conceal his utter delight.
Cue an unforgettable celebration somewhere near Larkhall, as King explained: “I am staying with mum and dad tonight and we’ll be having a good party!” It will perhaps be champagne-fuelled as the £102,000 first prize took King through the million-pound mark for seasonal winnings, helped by stunning recent form that has seen almost two-thirds of his entrants finish in the places.
No horse ever wins the four-mile marathon easily, but given an inspired ride by Wayne Hutchinson, 12-1 shot Godsmejudge made it look relatively straightforward and was a much more comfortable winner than the official four lengths margin of victory indicated. Big Occasion, also returned at 12-1, finished second with 25-1 shots Mister Marker and Tour Des Champs in third and fourth respectively.
Amazingly, not a single representative of the owning syndicate, Favourites Racing, was on hand to collect the big prize – the Worcestershire-based syndicate is managed by former jumps jockey David Dennis and they have their own pre-training yard, but what a pity no one was at Ayr yesterday to see their horse win.
Godsmejudge is only seven, and his ecstatic trainer had no hesitation afterwards in predicting a tilt at an even bigger prize, the Aintree Grand National, for this Irish-bred son of Witness Box. King said: “He is only a novice over fences, but even before today we were thinking he might be a Grand National horse. That win just confirms out thoughts. I don’t think that’s being far-fetched at all because he’s a great jumper.”
Godsmejudge simply jumped his rivals into submission. Problema Tic was the first to fall, at the second fence, bringing down Bradley. The former horse’s trainer David Pipe sprinted from the stands to catch the horse in front of the stands.
Lively Baron fell at the fifth, the only other horse to come down. Meanwhile, Garleton was setting a strong pace early on, with Knockara Beau and Pentiffic prominent, but it was clear from early in the race that several of the big fancies were struggling.
Much-touted favourite Rival D’Estruval was pulled up on the second circuit, as was the main Scottish-trained hope Nuts N Bolts from the Lucinda Russell stable. From late on the first circuit there was clearly no chance that Auroras Encore and Scottish jockey Ryan Mania would repeat their Aintree Grand National heroics, and he, too, was pulled up.
Hutchinson had placed Godmejudge perfectly at virtually every fence and down the back straight on the second circuit he sent his mount to the front and the pair remorselessly galloped on, barely touching a twig in a superb exhibition of jumping.
Big Occasion tried to challenge but Hutchinson had timed his effort to perfection and was clear and celebrating before the line.
Hutchinson said: “All credit to the boss, the horses have been in fantastic form. What a way to top off the season. When I needed him up the straight, for a little horse he is like a rubber ball. He was game all the way up the run-in.”
Injured stable jockey Robert “Choc” Thornton missed out on the big winner, and King was sympathetic: “It’s a bloody shame as he has had a rough time of it, but he’s in good form and he’ll be delighted that the horse has won. He’ll be back in the autumn, but we are in the very fortunate position that we have Wayne ready to stand in. He gave Godsmejudge a faultless ride.”
It was a dream return to familiar territory for King: “I worked at Cree Lodge in the 1980s so it is like coming home for me. I milked cows for a while after I left school but I didn’t like that.
“I went down to the yard of David Nicholson and was supposed to be there for six months but I didn’t come back and stayed there for 15 years.”
Now master of the Barbury Castle stables in Wiltshire, King has had his share of big winners including major prizes at the Cheltenham festival, but yesterday’s victory meant a great deal to the Scot.
King said: “We have won a Champion Hurdle [Katchit in 2008] and a Champion Chase [Voy Pur Ustedes in 2007] but this is right up there with them.”
Earlier, the QTS Scottish Champion Hurdle was won by 4-1 shot Court Minstrel, trained by Evan Williams and ridden by 3lb claimer Adam Wedge.
Conquisto at 5-1 lifted the Listed Scotty Brand Handicap Chase for trainer Steve Gollings and jockey Tom Scudamore, who was taken to hospital suffering from concussion after his fall from Problema Tic in the National, the very next race.