EVEN in a sport brimming with heartwarming stories, there have been few successes as stirring as Lie Forrit’s final-stride victory in Haydock’s Betfred Grand National Trial.
At the end of three miles and five furlongs, just a nostril separated Lucinda Russell’s charge from the gallant runner-up Harry The Viking – with the ever popular Monbeg Dude back in third.
However, the poignancy in the winner’s enclosure was palpable. This was a one-two for Scotland – both Russell and the runner-up’s handler Sandy Thomson ply their trade north of the border. Connections congratulated and commiserated with each other in equal measure.
And then there was Lesley Gillies, one of Lie Forrit’s owners, stepping forward onto the winner’s podium. Seven of the horse’s 12 career winners came courtesy of her late son Campbell who died in a holiday tragedy in 2012. His role with the horse will never be forgotten.
No horse has won the Haydock marathon and Grand National in the same season, a record that will stand because Lie Forrit does not hold an entry for the Aintree race – not least because of the 11-year-old’s diminutive size.
Ridden with confidence by Peter Buchanan, and confirming the form at Kelso when Lie Forrit narrowly denied Harry The Viking in early January, the Coral Scottish National at Ayr will be his priority.
“We knew he wouldn’t be able to dominate today. Peter said he had plenty in the tank coming up the straight but it didn’t look like that to me watching it,” said Russell, who was recording her third victory in this race following Silver By Nature’s dual successes in 2010 and 2011.
“He lost his nerve over fences as a novice, but obviously he was a very good hurdler. That meant his chase mark was much lower and he has been better than ever this season. The Scottish National is the plan now, he has proved he stays. We didn’t even enter him for Aintree, so he will go straight there.”
As for the runner-up, much will depend on how the handicapper responds ahead of tomorrow’s publication of the weights for this year’s Crabbie’s Grand National.
Previously owned by Sir Alex Ferguson, the chaser – who looked to be edging the thriller under the improving Derek Fox until the last stride – now runs in the colours of Douglas Pryde and Jim Beaumont, two of the lucky men who enjoyed Aintree glory in 2013 with Sue Smith’s Auroras Encore, as well as the trainer’s wife Quona. It will be touch and go whether the horse makes the 40-runner cut; connections felt they needed to win the race to be certain.
However, the Thomson team were far happier with comeback horse Seeyouatmidnight’s second in the Rendlesham Hurdle to surprise winner Closing Ceremony who was ridden with confidence from the front by Richie McLernon.
Seeyouatmidnight won this race 12 months ago in eye-catching style and a lack of fitness put paid to his chances. The Ladbrokes World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival remains the target and Thomson told The Yorkshire Post: “I am more than relieved. I am elated. As long as he comes out of the race without a bother, he will go to the World Hurdle.”
From a Yorkshire perspective, Brian Ellison’s Definitly Red is one to follow after holding off the renewed challenge of Fletchers Flyer in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.
Ridden by Richard Johnson, the winner is likely to skip the Cheltenham Festival, unless the ground is bottomless, and head to Aintree instead. His future, however, is over fences. “He’ll make a lovely three-mile chaser next season,” said Ellison.
Balder Success sent out a serious message to his potential rivals at the Cheltenham Festival next month with an impressive victory in the Betfair Ascot Chase.
He is bound for the Ryanair Chase and winning trainer Alan King said: “He was back in his comfort zone, I’m thrilled and relieved.”
One possible opponent could be the Willie Mullins-trained Champagne Fever who returned to winning ways at Gowran Park in Ireland under Paul Townend.
However, the two-mile Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase remains a tantalising proposition in a wide-open renewal with doubts still surrounding the form and fitness of Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy, the last two winners.
The picture could become clearer at Chepstow on Saturday if Sire De Grugy, the reigning champion, makes an unexpected reappearance after failing to fire at Newbury 10 days ago where he unseated jockey Jamie Moore at the third last.
The horse is trained by Moore’s father Gary, who said: “We were disappointed with what he showed as he didn’t jump with his usual confidence or conviction.”
It prompted champion trainer Paul Nicholls to assert, after Ascot’s meeting, that his horse Dodging Bullets “deserves to be favourite” for the Champion Chase following two Grade One wins this season.
Guiseley trainer Richard Drake’s Raktiman won at Market Rasen yesterday under conditional jockey Jonathan England.