IT Is Sue Smith’s mobile office for the morning. She is sitting in a motorised Tuk Tuk on open moorland, protected from the elements, as her Grand National runners I Just Know and Delusionofgrandeur stride up the rain-sodden gallops.
It might be unglamorous – a world away from the tens of thousands of raucous racegoers who will be at Aintree today – but these are the hard yards that shape a horse’s form and fitness ahead of the sport’s ultimate race.
She then gets out, braves the rain gusting across the exposed land and watches a string of six horses canter past her vantage point on Baildon Moor. She is quietly satisfied with them all – including her two National runners after Delusionofgrandeur unexpectedly made the cut yesterday lunchtime when two higher-rated horses were pulled out because of the testing ground.
“Just the way they are going,” she tells The Yorkshire Post. “The way they are moving. They are all working very well within themselves.”
And then I Just Know’s work rider offers his own confirmation. “I couldn’t fault him,” says jockey Sam Coltherd as Smith inspects her charges.
Their job is done. Today the two runners will bid to give Smith – and her redoubtable husband Harvey – a second National triumph five years after Auroras Encore prevailed.
Back then the couple, steeped in racing and showjumping, had to contend with snow and piercing Siberian-like blizzards in the build-up. This year, it has been the relentless rain.
Another 22mm have fallen overnight. Nearby roads are only passable with care, fields are waterlogged and the only horsepower on the moor is equine – and Smith’s own runaround – because the ground is so sodden.
Though hopeful, they’re also realistic. The day the nation goes racing, or has a 50p each way flutter, it’s the race where the unexpected should be expected as horses encounter 30 fences and four-and-a-quarter miles like no other.
They’ve had, in the past, more fancied runners that did not complete the course. Conversely Auroras Encore was a 66-1 outsider when he surged clear under Ryan Mania, now a huntsman in the Scottish borders.
Just the third woman in history to saddle a National winner, Smith is perplexed when people describe the National as life-changing.
Now 70, she’s working as hard, and enjoying her racing as much, as she did in 1990 when African Safari was her first ever winner after her husband, the canniest of Yorkshiremen, decided they’d be better training their horses at their High Eldwick farm rather than paying someone else to do the job.
“You get great jubilation from winning the National because it is a race that everyone wants to win,” she says. “If you’ve won it once, you’re very lucky. If you can win it twice, that will be brilliant.
“The feeling it gives you when you do win is great. For everyone. The yard. The jockey. The owners. The lads who do the mucking out. The vet. The farrier. Everyone. It gives the whole yard a sense of pride. It’s like one big family.”
And, to prove her point, she points to the hubbub in the kitchen. Her husband, now in his 80th year, is cooking a full English breakfast; forthcoming entries are being made; a passing owner has dropped in for a chat and jockeys are perusing the form book before braving the elements again.
They include I Just Know’s big race jockey Danny Cook who has come into his own since joining the yard when the aforementioned Mania retired in 2014. His first rides for the stable were winning ones, but it was his will to win that stood out.
Now 34, he did not sit on a horse until he joined the Northern Racing College at the age of 16. “I didn’t finish school. I was kicked out at 14,” he tells I Just Know’s work rider Coltherd who will be partnering Captain Redbeard for his father Stuart, a Scottish sheep farmer, in the National.
He’s learned – and matured. Yet, even before fate intervened and he chose to become a jockey because the racing college was quicker to respond to his application than the Army, he admired the Smith horses – and their affinity with staying steeplechasers.
“When I was very young and watching the horse racing on TV, I always wanted to ride for Sue Smith with her horses being tough, good jumpers,” says the rider. “I always used to follow horses like The Last Fling and Kildimo.”
On the 47-winner mark for the campaign, and at home at this ‘no frills’ yard, he’s hopeful I Just Know has the right credentials after defying top weight in January to win Catterick’s North Yorkshire National before finishing second over hurdles at Uttoxeter last month.
“He jumps well. He’s only an eight-year-old, but he’s low and quick at his fences. He measures them so well. He’s very accurate with his jumping,” says Cook who is determined to “enjoy” the day and “embrace the moment” after the pressure of 12 months ago when his mount Definitly Red, one of the favourites, was pulled up after the saddle slipped.
“Racing is simple if you keep it simple. I feel like I am improving. The No 1 thing I have learned from Sue and Harvey? You can never be too positive. Have a positive frame of mind. Always think you’ve got a chance.”
And, in many respects, this is the mantra that has served the self-made and self-taught Smith so well. Bingley-born, his family’s only link with horses was his mother’s grandfather whose horses used to pull Bridlington’s lifeboat.
As he points out, it’s just over 70 years since he first competed at Bingley Show on a pony, Simon, that used to pull local farmer Jack Baker’s milk float. And it’s 60 years this year that Smith made his Nations Cup debut on Farmer’s Boy, the horse that made him, and became champion showjumper.
He might not like having his photograph taken – he says he’s “history” – but he’s living history and quickly produces a picture of Farmer’s Boy.
“One Nations Cups, 100 World Cups, won every Grand Prix there was worth winning, Three Olympics,” reels off Smith. “You’ve got to keep winning. There’s no point turning back.”
He’s particularly proud of his all-weather gallops, made from sand, carpet and “bits and bobs”, and how they were designed to withstand the worst of the British weather. The fact horses gallop uphill towards home is another advantage. “We never stop. We work every day,” he says.
Smith also buys most of the yard’s racehorses, including I Just Know. Unlike others, he likes the progeny of the sire Robin Des Pres. And he liked the horse’s build – and the look in his eye.
The sadness is longstanding owner Ray Scholey, who farmed near Doncaster, died recently and I Just Know will run in the light blue and yellow colours of his widow Margaret and their son Michael, a Wetherby farmer.
Yet, after saddling over 1,000 winners, it will take more than the rain to dampen the spirits of the Smiths who hope soft ground doesn’t impede I just Know after he was allotted 10st 8lb – or bottom weight Delusionofgranduer.
He runs in the colours of the McGoldrick Racing syndicate set up by Leeds owner Richard Longley whose ever popular horse, Mister McGoldrick, won at the Cheltenham Festival 10 years ago.
“We like to have winners,” says Sue Smith, who was an accomplished showjumper before taking out a training licence. “It’s something you can’t get out of you. If you are a horsey person and you have nice horses, you hope to bring them along and see them reach their potential.”