AFTER a war of attrition that lasted four miles, 110 yards and 27 fences of stamina-sapping battle at the Scottish Grand National yesterday, the biggest problem Al Co, a 40-1 outsider, had to overcome at Ayr was an inexplicable late wobble that almost unseated his journeyman jockey, Jamie Moore.
After clearing the final fence, the nine-year-old twice spooked and jinked to the right, prompting a momentary panic by the man in the saddle, but Moore retained enough composure to hold firm at the crucial moment and secure a famous, not to say surprising, victory.
Al Co had not run for 104 days, a deliberate tactic by his trainer, Peter Bowen, which paid off handsomely. Fresh and full of energy, he finished a length-and-a-half clear of Godsmejudge (16-1), last year’s winner, trained by the Scot, Alan King. Trustan Times (10-1) was a neck further back, with Merry King (50-1) fourth.
That it didn’t end in tears came as a huge relief to Moore, who plotted a sensible line on the outside and made his move relatively early. After winning on Sire De Grugy in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham, it has been a successful spring for the 29-year-old Brighton jockey, who spoke later of his scare at the finish.
“Peter told me to give him loads of daylight so I’ve gone wide,” said Moore. “I’ve probably gone for it a bit soon, but I was going well and Peter’s horses are always fit. My biggest worry was after the last when he spooked and I nearly fell. I don’t know if it was billboards, cameramen… I don’t know. Maybe he saw someone he didn’t like.”
The plan now is to give Al Co a shot at next year’s Grand National. Aintree, at least, will be rather more convenient for Bowen, who has had to show some pretty impressive stamina of his own this weekend. The 20-hour round trip from his yard in Pembrokeshire will doubtless take its toll, but it has been worth every minute.
Bowen said that he had been advising friends to choose Al Co as an each-way bet, and he saw nothing in the course of the race to change his mind. “I was always happy the way it was going,” said the trainer. “Jamie always had him on the outside because he likes to have plenty of daylight. He gave me a lovely ride. I thought he hit the front a bit too soon but I had a lot of faith in Jamie, and it worked out fine.
“He was in the best form we’ve ever had him. Luckily, we’ve got Ffos Las up the road so he had a racecourse gallop there and he was absolutely spot on for today.
“I didn’t see what happened on the run-in. I had four horses to watch and it was a job to keep an eye on them all. It’s just fantastic to win this race. To train him for the National (at Aintree) next year would be the plan.”
If Ayr is not exactly on the same scale as Aintree, it serves up quite a spectacle nonetheless. On a blustery, sunlit day, the voice of the public announcer came and went across the rooftops of a town that has proudly hosted this event since 1966. Racing, in fact, is reputed to have taken place in these parts for nearly half a millennium, which perhaps explains the support for it.
A healthy crowd gathered to gaze out across the old oval. Made-up women in tight-fitting dresses tumbled out of passing cars and tottered in their high heels towards the throng. Punters who were suited, booted and – by the time it was all over – blootered worked themselves into the frenzy that makes this a lucrative day for the bookies. Coral, the sponsors, had more takings at only three other meetings last year: the Grand National, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Derby. The showpiece race of yesterday’s card at Ayr is one of the richest races in the National Hunt calendar, and the largest to take place in Scotland.
Which is not to say that the rest of the afternoon’s contests were merely making up the numbers. Cockney Sparrow, a 12-1 shot trained by John Quinn, emerged in the final yards to secure a surprise win in the QTS Scottish Champion Hurdle. Dean Pratt timed the run to perfection by sitting up in the stirrups and giving the five-year-old mare a pat on the neck as she pulled clear.
The winning margin was two-and-a-quarter lengths from Court Minstrel, who edged out the top weight, My Tent or Yours. The latter again struggled to settle despite the application of a hood designed to curb the enthusiasm that cost the seven-year-old in the Champion Hurdle at last month’s Cheltenham Festival.
Just over an hour later came the main event, although not at the first time of asking. Battle Group, who stirred up such a controversy at Aintree last week by refusing, caused another false start in the 3:50 here. When they set off for a second time, the horse again seemed reluctant, only to amble off round the back straight a couple of fences behind. The British Horseracing Authority is now expected to consider his future.
For much of the race, Green Flag, trained in Scotland by Lucinda Russell, looked capable of challenging, especially after an impressive run at Cheltenham last time out, but eventually he ran out of steam. So, too, did Tidal Bay, the fancied 13-year-old who unseated Sam Twiston-Davies at Aintree. “There had been talk of Tidal Bay retiring, but he will definitely stay in training next season, as long as he is fit and well,” said his trainer, Paul Nicholls.
King, meanwhile, was not too disappointed that Godsmejudge failed in his quest to become the first back-to-back winner of the Scottish Grand National since 1985.
“I’m very proud of him,” said the Lanark-born trainer, now based in Wiltshire. “We said all the way through that it’s been a very difficult preparation. He’s only just coming back and that was a mighty run. He’ll have a summer out and regroup for next year. That was awesome.”