NEITHER jockey David Bass – or trainer Kim Bailey – have looked back since they teamed up at Cheltenham 12 months ago when Darna won the handicap chase in convincing style.
A buoyant Bass is enjoying a career-best season thanks to horses like Barters Hill who is a deserved favourite for the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at this year’s Festival while Bailey, one of the few trainers to saddle the winner of the Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and Grand National, remains one of racing’s eternal optimists.
Now both are hoping that The Last Samuri, one of the country’s more progressive steeplechasers, can confirm his Crabbies Grand National credentials in today’s BetBright Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster, the climax to the 2015-16 jumps season on Town Moor.
Though there are considerable grounds of optimism for this lightly-raced eight-year-old owned by Paul and Clare Rooney, the slight concern is the snow and rain that has fallen in South Yorkshire and which is likely to make the going tacky for this three-and-a-quarter mile test.
This, after all, is a horse who was third to Sue and Harvey Smith’s stable star Wakanda in Newcastle’s Rehearsal Chase before landing Kempton’s William Hill Handicap Chase on December 27 in the manner of a horse who appears to have an abundance of speed and stamina – two qualities which are Aintree pre-requisites.
“I think he’s got a good chance today,” Bass told The Yorkshire Post.
“I’m just worried about the ground. He has won on soft, but I wouldn’t want it to be heavy.
“He is the most progressive horse in the line up. The Rehearsal Chase form has worked out very well, with Wakanda winning the big race at Ascot just before Christmas, and he won well at Kempton.
“He needed every yard of the three miles so the step up in trip for the Grimthorpe shouldn’t be a problem. It’s brilliant to be involved with a horse who, touch wood, could go to Aintree with a good chance.”
For Bass, just completing the unique Aintree course would constitute progress – he has failed to complete the race on his two previous rides with Shakalakaboomboom pulled up in 2014 before The Rainbow Hunter fell last year when fading out of contention.
“I would like to win that race more than any other,” he said. “When I was growing up, it was the race that captured my imagination more than any other. I would love to win it – it’s hard now to even get a ride in it.”
Bass also reports the aforementioned Barters Hill, still unbeaten from seven starts, to be in fine form ahead of the Cheltenham Festival. The horse, trained by Ben Pauling, had to dig deep to win at Doncaster at the end of January and will do some work this weekend with the jockey.
“I rode him last week and he was very well,” added Bass.
As for Cheltenham, Bass and Bailey will both be hoping for a repeat victory with Darna in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate, a competitive two-and-a-half mile handicap chase won by Yorkshire’s very own Mister McGoldrick in 2008.
Bailey hopes to have four runners in total at the meeting, but warned: “They all want good ground. That’s when a trainer’s life is never easy. We want good ground at Doncaster for The Last Samuri and it goes and bloody snows.”
The trainer only acquired The Last Samuri on November 3 after the Rooneys moved their 30-plus string of horses from Donald McCain’s out-of-sorts yard to a number of trainers. The brief was a simple one: Try and win the National.
“I’m happy with him, but he needs to run. It’s six weeks to the National and there is nowhere else to go. The further he goes, the better he goes. He’s not going to Doncaster half-fit,” he said.
Having won the National in 1990 when Mr Frisk won the race in a course record time – the horse thrived on fast ground – Bailey knows that this is a pivotal time of year for trainers as attention turns to Cheltenham and then Aintree.
“Like everything, it is make sure nothing goes wrong,” said the trainer who completed the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup double in 1995 with Alderbrook and Master Oats respectively. “You’re looking out for every single stone so your horse doesn’t tread on it. You’re in the lap of the gods. You can’t molly-coddle them.”