WELCOME to Ayr, the bread and butter of the National Hunt game, the reality before the fantasy of this week’s Cheltenham Festival.
It’s Friday and it’s cold and most of the folk that have come through the gate are cosseted in the bar watching the handicap hurdles and the novices’ hurdles and the beginners’ chases on television, five grand races here, eight and a half grand races there, all them analysed over a pint of stout and a Racing Post. Diehard racing people, these. Salt of the Ayrshire earth.
Lucinda Russell and her partner and assistant trainer, the legendary former champion jockey Peter Scudamore, are saddling up. They’re working on Clondaw Flicka and Hallmark Star, Delightfully and Stormion, Green Flag and Castlelawn. None of these will win but the trainers pick the bones out of defeat. This one ran well, that one showed promise, another gives them hope of better days ahead. “That’s the beauty of racing,” says Russell. “There’s always the next day and the next day is literally the next day.”
Their Cheltenham hopefuls are back at home at the yard at Arlary House in Milnathort, feet up, in an equine way. There’s Tap Night with his pedigree on the dirt in America before his arrival in Scotland and his purchase by JP McManus, the owner who every trainer wants to be involved with. “The badge of approval,” as Scu calls it. Next there’s Nuts N Bolts, an animal they think a lot of and one they’re hoping will go well this week just so long as they can pick the right race to run him in. That’s what they’re talking about now. Where to place these horses? Tap Night is entered in three races, Nuts N Bolts is entered in three, Saphir River, a hurdler with form in France, is the third raider. A Coral Cup chance, perhaps. “He’ll be a huge price,” says Scu. “A good one for the each-way punters.”
“People are asking us what’s Tap Night running in and what’s Nuts N Bolts running in but the honest answer is that we don’t really know yet,” says Russell. “This is what Cheltenham is all about. Horses drop out and horses drop in and you’re trying to figure out what horses you might be up against and what race gives you the best chance. It depends on the ground as well. Depends on lots of things. We’ll talk about nothing else, me and Scu. We might be having a conversation about something unrelated to racing and then one of us will say ‘Oh, what about...’ and we’ll be off again.”
Tense times, these. Not exactly sleepless nights, but there’s an eagerness laced with an excitement and an uncertainty. The horses are checked constantly, like children. They are fretted over. Mothered and fathered. “I don’t know if horses feel pressure,” says Russell, “but you can see the ones who enjoy the experience and those who don’t. You can see the ones who look around at the huge crowds and go, ‘Yeah, I’m born for this’. We hope the ones we’re bringing down this year are like that. We think they are. We think they’ll handle it just fine.”
Just like Brindisi Breeze did last year. Brindisi and his jockey, Campbell Gillies, and the fairytale story that electrified the Russell yard. The Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, effectively a three mile sprint. What a day. In her mind’s eye she can see it still. Boston Bob, the hotpot from Ireland, trying to come back at Brindisi up the Cheltenham hill only Brindisi wasn’t for coming back, Gillies not giving an inch to Ruby Walsh on Bob, Ruby riding like a demon but powerless in the face of the brilliance ahead.
Gillies beamed in the aftermath. “He’s blown us away,” he said of his horse. “He’s got it all.” They both had. In the days after, somebody took a photograph of Gillies with Brindisi, the pair of them sitting on the straw at home like best pals, the horse looking at the rider who looked at the camera with a huge smile and with thumbs up. Brindisi was six years old and seemingly destined for more glory. Gillies was 21 and had the world at his feet. That was mid-March 2012. By the end of June, both would be gone, the horse hit and killed by a lorry after jumping out of his summer paddock and young Campbell, the great dynamo of Russell’s yard, dying on holiday in Corfu after an accident in a swimming pool.
“You know, I said I wouldn’t talk about it again and here I am talking about it,” said Russell on Friday. “When Brindisi died we thought that was the worst thing that could happen because he was such terrific horse and could have been very special. We’ll never know how special he could have been. But, when Campbell died, it was just grief on a different scale and we’re all still in the grieving process to be honest. We still can’t make sense of it. What needs to be said is that we lost a great jockey and a great friend but Campbell’s family lost a son and a brother and their loss is so much greater. The reason I’m kind of reluctant to talk about it is because there are lot of people besides us who are mourning him and, naturally, his family are mourning more than anybody. It’s just that we’re asked about him by newspapers and you want to pay tribute but at the same time you don’t want to upset those who were closest to him by talking about his loss. We all think about him a lot. And I feel we should celebrate him. And I’m so happy that he had that day at Cheltenham last year when he was absolutely brilliant and Brindisi was brilliant and we have the pictures and the memories of the most special day in our lives as trainers. I’m so glad he knew what it was like to ride a winner at the Festival, that he got the buzz of coming up the hill in front.”
There’s a song about the pair of them, performed wonderfully by the Irish singer-songwriter, Mark Boylan.“Mark is a very talented young man and he’s produced a fantastic tribute,” says Scu. “He sings about Campbell’s ‘boots of shining leather’ and that’ll always make me smile because those boots were very important to him. He was a leader, Campbell. But he never went out to lead. It was just natural with him. He was a person that people followed, even older people. The whole yard followed him.
“He was 21, but he was a man. His mother was a huge, huge influence on him and he was very, very tidy. He had these boots, you see. These lovely boots he used to ride out in. At the end of the morning everybody would be sweeping the yard and Campbell would be in the tack room shining these boots and Lucinda would be saying ‘Campbell, get out and help’ and he’d be sitting there shining and shining. He had a nickname for them. He used to call them his children. He was very, very funny and there’s a big hole since he died. There’s lots of people still grieving, but it’s so much worse for his family. Brindisi won the Albert Bartlett on the Friday of last year’s Festival and Friday will be a very poignant day for everyone.”
They’ve experienced loss, but they must move on, must look for more champions and more great days. This has been a season that has brought many winners, 52 so far with only another dozen required to take Len Lungo’s record of most victories by a Scottish trainer. Russell’s stable is 80-strong, a burgeoning operation run by a lady who is by turns intense and fun-loving depending on the circumstance. Right now she’s laughing with her partner, but this week she’ll be the epitome of studied concentration.
“It was like last year when we went out to meet Brindisi after he won. You’re in your own little world, like it’s a parallel universe. There are all these people who are there to have a great time and then there’s us and, of course, we’re having a great time, too, but it’s different. It’s very serious and it’s pressure but there’s no other place in the world we’d rather be.”
“It’s a truly amazing place, Cheltenham,” says Scu. “There’s a brutal honesty about the place and these races are not for the faint-hearted.” Scu should know. He rode 13 winners at the Festival in his time and 1,678 winners in all. This week, they’d settle for one: Tap Night; Nuts N Bolts; Saphir River. Russell says that her one regret last year was that she didn’t bring a Saltire with her. She may have the flag this time. You can but hope that she has the winner to hang it on, too.