Five days before the Grand National, Stuart Coltherd stands atop Gala Rig, a hill two miles outside Selkirk. Below him, on a near cloudless, sunlit day, there are TV cameras trained on four horses as they go about their work. The lead horse, whose coat glows in the rare sunshine of a cold, inclement spring, is the main subject of attention, and Coltherd, as he surveys the scene, has difficulty believing it.
“You know, we used to joke that, if we had a Grand National horse, where would we take the television cameras,” said Coltherd. “Well, here I am. All of a sudden, it’s happening. And I’ve even arranged the weather.”
It’s press day for nine-year-old gelding Captain Redbeard, Coltherd’s runner in tomorrow’s Aintree marathon and one of 22 racehorses he trains at Clarilawmuir Farm.
Redbeard looks magnificent as he gallops up Gala Rig, site of the former Selkirk racecourse, where horses first raced in the 17th century, and Coltherd harbours hopes of a good run at Aintree. “If you look at his form and the good horses that have finished behind him, I’m hopeful he can be right there at the end,” he said. “But you need a lot of luck in the National.”
The excitement at the yard is palpable, although, with 600 acres to farm and 100 ewes to lamb, it is only now, in the final week before the race, that the realisation of Redbeard’s National run is dawning. “We’ve been so busy, we’ve not had time to think about it,” admitted Coltherd, who took out a training licence in 2004.
It was just before Christmas, though, that the possibility of a National run became apparent to the small family operation when Redbeard won the Tommy Whittle Handicap Chase at Haydock. “Before that, I’d always thought of him as a two-and-a half miler who needed better ground, but then he goes and wins the Tommy Whittle in a mudbath and he’s galloped all the way to the line,” added Coltherd.
A second in the Peter Marsh Chase, back at Haydock in January, convinced him that the National should be the aim, a view supported by Lucinda Russell, trainer of One for Arthur, Scotland’s Aintree winner last year, who encouraged Coltherd to go for it.
Since Haydock, Redbeard has won an Aintree prep race over hurdles at Ayr when, due to the snow, he was only 80 per cent fit, according to Coltherd’s 19-year-old jockey son Sam, who will have the mount on Saturday. “He won how he liked at Ayr,” said Sam. “It was a nice prep and he came out of the race really well.”
Sam is also convinced the Aintree fences will pose no special problem for Redbeard, who is one of two Scottish horses in the race, joining the strongly fancied Seeyouatmidnight, trained by Sandy Thomson at Greenlaw.
Redbeard finished sixth in the Grand Sefton over the National obstacles last year and Sam says: “He took to the fences really well and was a bit unlucky when a horse fell in front of him. I just cannot wait for Saturday.”
Redbeard – or Spot as he is known for the white mark on his hindquarters – has become one of the family since his arrival at Clarilawmuir Farm five years ago. “I bought him privately with the intention of selling him on to one of my owners,” explained Coltherd, 51. “But no-one took up the offer, so we kept him, and we’re so glad we did. He’s going nowhere now. We’ve taken our time with him, and he’s improved every year we’ve had him.”
At 25-1, the bookmakers may not have great belief, but the Coltherds have upset the odds before. In 2013, their 100-1 shot, Tartan Snow, won the Foxhunters’ Chase at Aintree. “People tend to write off the small stables,” said Coltherd’s wife, Lesley, who has decided not to go to Aintree “I’ll be more use here, looking after the other horses.”
Too nervous, she will not even watch on TV. “There’ll be people working at the yard and they’ll watch it, but I’ll be in the kitchen listening. If he’s got a chance of winning, I might pop in for a peek, though. But I just want them to get round safely. Anything else is a bonus.”
Daughters Milly, 16, who described the prospect of going to Aintree as “surreal”, and Amy, 20, will accompany Coltherd, with the horse being led up by Amy. With Sam in the saddle, it will be, in every sense, a family affair.
A stag party from Selkirk has decided to celebrate at Aintree – Sam predicts this could be “wild” – while a large contingent of family and friends are also descending on the Merseyside track. “If we win, I might return from Liverpool in April some time,” joked Coltherd.
A small stable defying the odds and some of the sport’s richest exponents to give Scotland a second consecutive win in the world’s greatest race… now that would be a reason for us all to celebrate.