TRUSTAN Times can help roll back the years for the Easterby family and ensure Malton racing’s annus mirabilis ends on a winning note.
The six-year-old’s task in the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle is made easier by the absence of the record-breaking Big Buck’s – the champion misses the rest of the season through injury after winning 18 races in succession.
Yet Trustan Times goes to Ascot on merit after following up his eye-catching victory at Wetherby on Charlie Hall Chase day by landing the prestigious Betfair Fixed Brush handicap Hurdle at Haydock a month ago.
Both victories epitomised Ryedale racing’s year to remember. While Richard Fahey’s Mayson enjoyed Grade One success on the Flat, it is the area’s National Hunt resurgence which has been most eye-catching.
First, John Quinn landed Cheltenham’s Triumph Hurdle with Countrywide Flame, who proved this 33-1 success was no fluke when winning the Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle at the beginning of the month – the four-year-old could be a major player in next year’s Champion Hurdle.
It was not an isolated success. His neighbour, Malcolm Jefferson, performed a training miracle when stablemates Cape Tribulation and Attaglance both won handicap hurdles at the fiercely competitive Cheltenham and Aintree festivals, though his stable’s run of success ended tragically with the loss of the much-missed According To Pete in the Grand National.
Now the mantle passes to Trustan Times and his Great Habton trainer Tim Easterby. Victorious a decade ago in the St Leger with Bollin Eric, his father Peter was responsible for National Hunt icons in the late 1970s and early 1980s like Night Nurse, Sea Pigeon and Little Owl.
While Brian Ellison’s ultra-consistent Bothy represents Malton in a competitive renewal of The Ladbroke at Ascot – young claimer Patrick Corbett takes the ride – local eyes will be on Trustan Times, who was actually entered in the Long Walk before Big Buck’s suffered a season-ending injury earlier this week while on champion trainer Paul Nicholls’s gallops.
“We accepted for the race because the money for second and third is good. We were going down there to try and win but we wouldn’t have done with Big Buck’s in the race. With him pulled out, I suppose we’d have a chance now,” said Easterby senior with a careful eye, as always, on the financial bottom line.
It was the former champion trainer who spotted the potential of Trustan Times in an Irish point-to-point and bought him to Great Habton.
Like so many Easterby horses, he is a potential steeplechaser in the making, but jockey Dougie Costello still believes the horse is on an upward curve after defying top weight in the Haydock contest that was run on arduous ground.
“He’s stepping up in company so today will tell us a lot,” said Costello, whose finest hour in 2012 appropriately came when partnering Countrywide Flame to victory at Cheltenham.
“Trustan Times has been a solid horse for the last two seasons and he has grown up and matured a lot this year. He pulled up in front at Haydock with 11st 12lb on his back. I always thought he wanted good ground as he moves like a good ground horse.
“He’s big enough and strong enough to go through sloppy ground. I hope it is sloppy as I don’t think he wants to get stuck in it. He was very impressive at Haydock and he seems to take his races better than last year. He is stepping up in company now so he has to prove himself. You’d like to think he’d be in the first three whichever way he goes.”
Another hoping to benefit from the unexpected absence of Big Buck’s is Reve De Sivola, who chased home the four-time World Hurdle hero at Newbury three years ago. This performance was made more impressive by the fact that the Nick Williams-trained seven-year-old had been sidelined for nearly a year with a tendon injury picked up at this Ascot meeting 12 months ago.
“It’s wide open now but no-one likes to win a race when a horse like Big Buck’s is injured,” said owner Paul Duffy, who confirmed that Richard Johnson replaces the suspended Daryl Jacob in the saddle. “He was pretty fit when he ran first time, but, hopefully, he can come on for it.”
One horse on the comeback trail is Alan King’s Smad Place, who was bitterly disappointing behind Tidal Bay in the John Smith’s Hurdle at Wetherby last month.
This run bore no resemblance to Smad Place’s eye-catching third-place finish in this year’s Ladbrokes World Hurdle. “It is very sad that Big Buck’s is out for the season, but the Long Walk Hurdle now has a real open look, and we have to fancy our chances,” said King. “We have tweaked a few things at home and Smad Place was much more like his old self when we galloped him last Saturday.”
Jockey Robert Thornton is bullish. “We are very hopeful. He ran up at Wetherby and was slightly disappointing, but he’s had a few checks and a full MOT just to iron out a few things,” he said. “He seems in cracking form and is coming to himself. It’s got to be tempting with Big Buck’s out. You don’t like to see that, but, hopefully, we can make the best of it.”
With Big Buck’s on the sidelines and stablemate Five Dream also out of the three-mile contest due to an infected foot, champion trainer Paul Nicholls relies on Prospect Wells.
He has shown smart form at two miles for the last couple of seasons and Nicholls feels he could be even more effective over a longer distance. “He’s in no-man’s land in the handicap and I’m convinced he wants a trip,” wrote the trainer. “I’ve just got a feeling over three miles he’s going to be really effective.”
Of course, there is no room for sentiment in racing – but a victory for Trustan Times would demonstrate the strength of Malton racing heading into 2013.