as Grand National hero Auroras Encore prepares to make his long-awaited comeback, his trainers Sue and Harvey Smith – racing royalty in these parts following their horse’s Aintree heroics – are already looking to the future.
They hope that their great warrior can become the first horse since the immortal Red Rum four decades ago to win back-to-back Nationals, but they know that Auroras – who will become a 12-year-old racing veteran on New Year’s Day – will have to defy steeplechaser’s handicapper if he is to make racing history of his own.
There is quiet confidence about the chances of their second-season steeplechaser Vintage Star who is set to line up in the Coral Welsh National at Chepstow in a week’s time. Victory would be a fitting end to a year to remember. He could be an Aintree horse in the future.
And then there is the clutch of young horses roaming the moorland above Baildon and Bingley, so at home in the wild wilderness of West Yorkshire, and being carefully nurtured under the shrewd eye of the showjumping icon and his wife.
Even though Smith, affectionately called ‘Harry’ by his wife at their wind-swept yard, will be 75 years young on Sunday week, this is their life and victory in the world’s greatest steeplechase has not made an iota of difference to their outlook on training.
“We are everyday men, we’re not high-fliers,” says Smith in his inimitable, no-nonsense way, before conceding that he did shed a “tear of pride” at Aintree as he watched his champion return in triumph.
His wife concurs. She is still embarrassed when introduced on racecourses as the ‘Grand National-winning trainer’ – the only racing certainty in 2014 is that she will not be fazed by the fame when Auroras Encore prepares for his National defence after reappearing, in all probability, in the William Hill Rowland Meyrick Chase at Wetherby on Boxing Day.
“When we were travelling everywhere showjumping, and won a big class, we did go out and have a nice drink and a glass of wine, and that was it. Next day we were back to work,” she told the Yorkshire Post.
“It was the same after the National. A meal at Dick Hudsons pub with the owners and friends, and back to work. We had runners on the Sunday. We don’t make success last a week or a fortnight. It’s lovely to be called ‘Grand National-winning trainer’ but I don’t even think about it. We don’t look backwards ... we look forwards.”
It was on this weekend 12 months ago – when Auroras Encore was declared for the Rowland Meyrick and finished fourth to Malcolm Jefferson’s highly-rated Cape Tribulation – that the allure of the National became a tempting proposition.
“We thought the Grand National could be a good target because he had run so well in the Scottish National when he was second,” she said.
“It was touch and go whether we would get into the race – we were still trying to work it out on the Monday of Aintree. When we knew we were in, we were pleased but there were other things being thrown at us like the weather. You’ve got to have your horse thoroughly fit, and we had snow drifting across the gallops for days, but it’s more than that.
“Stamina first, a bit of speed work and their jumping muscles have to be good. You have to incorporate all three into their regime. We took Auroras Encore and Mr Moonshine to Wetherby for a gallop, and then there was a crucial bit of work here on the Tuesday.
“It’s one thing getting a horse to Aintree. The second is having a bit of luck in running. It’s very easy to be brought down or bumped into. We had such a clear run – that was our bit of luck on the day – and it had stayed dry. The cold wind had dried out of the ground.”
And then there was Ryan Mania, the 23-year-old jockey who had given up the sport because of a lack of opportunities before being spotted by Harvey Smith at Carlisle races in 2012 and told to start riding out at Craiglands Farm.
His two rides over the National fences at the Becher Chase meeting in December 2012 provided him with invaluable inexperience, even though the Smith-trained Gansey was overhauled on the gruelling run-in by Sam Twiston-Davies and Little Josh. Yet here was a jockey who appeared to be nerveless, even though it was his first ride in the race.
“I think the lad had gained a lot of experience from those rides,” said the trainer. “When he came out that day, he was absolutely adamant of his plan of attack. He got his plan and he stuck to it, though there was probably the odd little thing that Harvey put him right on.
“When they pulled clear at the last, there was just relief that your old horse was back in one piece. And your jockey. The only sadness was my father (Henry Maslen) was not with us. He would have been absolutely made up. He was a horsey-man all the way through. He loved racing. I always had ponies but he always had racehorses for as long as I can remember. He encouraged us to get into training and gave us our first winner. Plumpton, Fontwell, Wye, he loved racing.”
He still has reason to be proud of his daughter – and son-in-law. Sue Smith may still be the most modest person in horse racing – she is, after all, just the third female trainer to win the National – but there is a quiet confidence as she checks her 50-plus string.
Asked to sum up her stable’s hopes for 2014, she offers just one word: “High.”
Not just ‘high’ in terms of her horses jumping their obstacles, but ‘high’ in the hope that the likes of Auroras Encore, Vintage Star and Cheltenham Festival possible De Boitron can continue to represent Craiglands Farm, a working farm and stable like no other, with distinction.
“It’s no good not being positive,” says the 65-year-old. “If everything goes to plan, touching wood, I don’t see why we cannot have another good run.
“Auroras is 12 after Christmas, but he’s not a worn out 12-year-old. He has an entry in the Rowland Meyrick and we’re going to have to make a start somewhere.
“It would be nice if Vintage Star could win the Welsh National, wouldn’t it? He is one of Trevor’s (Hemings) home-breds. When you look at him, he’s built to do the job. he was unlucky lat Newcastle when just beaten in the Rehearsal, but he’ll shape up for it. He’s a big old-fashioned chaser.”
Just how Sue and Harvey Smith like their horses.