TOM George reports Saint Are to be on track for the Randox Health Grand National after a successful prep race at Doncaster.
It will be a fourth crack at the Aintree showpiece for the 11-year-old, who was runner-up to Many Clouds two years ago.
Ninth to Sue Smith’s Auroras Encore in 2013, and pulled up before the final fence last year, Saint Are was only narrowly denied by Killa Quay in a veterans chase on Town Moor last week.
George has sent Saint Are to Yorkshire for the last two Nationals – the horse won at Catterick in February 2015 – and the Gloucestershire handler could not be happier with the horse’s latest run under Adrian Heskin.
“It was a great run,” said the trainer who believes the horse’s 10st 5lb handicap mark for the National is fair.
“It is coming into his time of year, as he loves the better ground. He was only beaten a head at Doncaster, under a big weight, which gets him back on track and spot on where we want to be.
“I did give him an entry in the Ultima Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival just to keep his options open – we needed to get a run into him before Aintree and just had to have a back-up in case something happened at Doncaster.
“Obviously, I need to have a word with his owner (David Fox) but Aintree is our priority. The ground just went again in the Grand National last year. He is fine on good to soft but once it gets softer than that he does start to struggle.”
George also has another intended runner in Double Shuffle, who was runner-up to Neil Mulholland’s Pilgrims Bay in the valuable BetBright Handicap Chase at Kempton Park on Saturday.
He said: “I’m delighted with Double Shuffle. He made an uncharacteristic mistake three out and lost a bit of momentum, but he stayed on well afterwards.”
As for Pilgrims Bay who will head to Cheltenham for the Ultima handicap Chase on day one of the National Hunt festival, jockey James Best’s only mishap came when his mount jinked after passing the winning post and unseated the rider.
Best, 26, said after winning the £100,000 prize: “It’s days like this that mean so much, this is the biggest day of my racing career. You’ve no idea how much it means and how grateful I am to be given an opportunity on a day like this.
“He travelled with ease the whole way through, but you can never be confident he will go through with it. I still got there too soon really, but he was good and he went through with it today.”
Having bided his time in the three-mile contest, Best arrived at the final fence with a double handful aboard the unheralded outsider as his nearest rivals began to feel the pinch.
Still sitting almost motionless over the final fence it was only halfway up the run-in that Best got at his mount before getting home by half a length from the rallying Double Shuffle.
“I’m delighted to give James Best a good winner. He is a hard worker who rides out on a regular basis,” said Mulholland who served his apprenticeship with Ferdy Murphy in North Yorkshire.
“It’s the obvious place to go (Ultima Handicap at Cheltenham), we have got The Druids Nephew and The Young Master but all three could line up in it.”
This was a weekend for the underdogs with Mysteree showing plenty of heart to claim top honours in the marathon Befred Eider Chase at Newcastle and make it a 24 hours to remember for trainer Michael Scudamore.
The nine-year-old won the extended four-mile feature a day after the winning trainer celebrated his 33rd birthday by saddling the Devon National winner at Exeter courtesy of Kingswell Theatre.
Mysteree, ridden with confidence by Robbie Dunne, was previously with the trainer’s father Peter, and his partner Lucinda Russell, at Kinross before connections decided he would benefit from a switch to a smaller yard.
Though the Scottish National on April 22 at Ayr is a possibility, underfoot conditions would need to be at their most testing.
“He slogged it out and did it the hard way in pretty tough conditions,” said Scudamore.
“He was fourth in this race last year, but is another year older and stronger this time. All being well, we will probably give him an entry in the Scottish National but that will obviously depend on the ground.”
Scudamore, whose stable has 30 horses in training, said it was important to have a standard-bearer after the injury-enforced retirement of the ever popular Monbeg Dude whose owners including Otley-born former rugby international Mike Tindall.
“When you lose a horse like Monbeg, it’s a big dent for a small team like ours,” added Scudamore.
Sue Smith’s Smooth Stepper was a leg-weary sixth while the pacesetting Straidnahanna was pulled up. However, the stable was buoyed by the gutsy win of steeplechaser De Vous A Moi who relished being switched back to hurdles.
Top jockey Barry Geraghty – retained rider to leading owner JP McManus – was last night ruled out of the Cheltenham Festival.
Geraghty was taken to hospital for further examination following a spill from the Nicky Henderson-trained odds-on favourite Charli Parcs at Kempton on Saturday, and was subsequently found to have a partially collapsed lung and a cracked rib.
He had a choice of leading contenders to ride in both the Champion Hurdle and Stayers’ Hurdle. Irish rider Mark Walsh is likely to be the main beneficiary from his compatriot’s absence.
Amateur rider Henry Morshead’s dream of riding in the Foxhunters’ Chase over Aintree’s Grand National fences is alive after Silver Roque’s point-to-point win yesterday for the grandson of former Gold Cup-winning trainer Peter Beaumont.
Micky Hammond’s Just Cameron, the mount of Henry Brooke, could only finish fourth in yesterday’s valuable two mile chase in Naas.
St Leger winner in intensive care: Main section, Page 5