VINTAGE CLOUDS is a picture of equine perfection as he powers up the gallops under Danny Cook in the horse’s final piece of work before today’s Randox Health Grand National.
Under the watchful eye of trainer Sue Smith, the grey thunders past her wind-swept vantage point high up on Baildon Moor. “Come on Danny, keep rolling,” implores her assistant Ryan Clavin, who is aboard The Paddy Pie.
Visually more impressive than the stable’s Auroras Encore in his last major gallop before winning the world’s greatest steeplechase six years ago, the two horses gallop on over the brow of the hill and out of sight.
And when they come to a halt, and hack back towards the ever-vigilant Smith, the response from the saddle is both effusive and encouraging. “Never had him in better form,” reports Cook.
Smith is content. “Job done lads,” she says before informing her husband Harvey, the 80-year-old legendary showjumper, of the horse’s wellbeing as he takes to his tractor to harrow his meticulously kept gallops.
Nothing here is ever left to chance.
For, while the winner of Aintree’s unique race over 30 fearsome fences will complete the gruelling four-and-a-quarter-mile course in nine minutes, the race is the culmination of a year’s work for the Smith team.
Ever since Vintage Clouds, whose coat is lighter than the slate grey skies overhead threatening sleet and snow, missed the 40-runner cut for last year’s National by just one horse, this £1m race has been the target.
Third in the Scottish National (the aforementioned Auroras Encore was second in the 2012 renewal), Vintage Clouds won his comeback race at Haydock before pulling up in the Welsh National last December following a rare below-par run.
Yet, after a minor wind operation to assist his breathing, the grey was an eyecatching second at the Cheltenham Festival last month and might have won if the race had been longer than three miles.
And it is this most recent run which has seen Vintage Clouds, now nine, emerge as one of the chief challengers to the Gordon Elliott-trained Tiger Roll as the defending champion bids to become the first dual winner since the legendary Red Rum in the 1970s.
“From not getting in last season, the target has been the National this year. Right from the word go,” Smith, 71, tells The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.
“He went to Haydock first time out and won there. We thought we had him in terrific form going to Chepstow for the Welsh National. That sticky going found him out and we discovered a wind problem. The vets did some tweaks and he ran a corker of a race at Cheltenham.”
Despite finishing second to champion trainer Nicky Henderson’s Beware The Bear, the trainer was phlegmatic in defeat. “That’s the name of the game. We can’t alter the trip once they are running,” she rued.
“The horse came home in absolutely super form. We haven’t had a problem or anything. It is all systems go. The horse has got a fabulous character which also helps.
“He’s always willing to work. He’s a lovely horse to deal with – to clip him, to shoe him. The only one annoying part is when he is travelling. He likes to kick the horse box to let you know he’s there. You get used to it. You know Vintage is on form.”
Yet the horse’s work ethic also epitomises the entire Craiglands Farm operation since Smith and her husband saddled the first of 1,000-plus winners in 1990 when African Safari won at Ascot.
Not the most prepossessing yard with its remnants of old machinery and scrap, it is very much a working farm where horses always come first.
And it is also a team. “I go and look at the horses on the gallops,” says Smith, a renowned horsewoman in her own right before taking up the training reins. “You have to have people to muck them out and do all the other things. It’s definitely a team job. It’s not a one person job.”
However, the stable’s record, particularly with staying steeplechasers, speaks for itself and vindicates the faith shown by Trevor Hemmings, the owner of Vintage Clouds, when he became one of its earliest supporters.
Hemmings, who has previously won the National with Hedgehunter, Ballabriggs and Many Clouds, was introduced to the Smiths at a showjumping contest – and their friendship has lasted.
The son of a Royal Ordnance worker, he is a self-made entrepreneur of repute who has never lost touch with his working class roots and is the first to appreciate what it takes to get a horse to the races. When he sent Vintage Clouds to the Smiths in 2014, the Grand National was – even back then – the long-term dream and today will be the grey’s toughest test.
And this explains why this race means more than any other to Smith. “It’s very important. The main thing with Trevor is that he has become a firm friend as well as a supporter of our stable,” she says.
“He did tell me last season that, so far, we have trained more winners for him than anyone else – and that means a lot. He’s a great supporter of ours and he gets very excited when his horses are getting near the winning post. He’s a great enthusiast but leaves us to get on with the job with his racing manager Mick Meagher. The National does mean everything to him. He has won it three times and I would love to be the fourth.”
Smith is speaking while supervising the window cleaner and finalising entries for the next day’s racing as jockeys descend on her kitchen to make their breakfast – and morning cup of tea.
Yet, after this brief hiatus, it is back to the stoutly-built stables to saddle up Vintage Clouds who is looked after by 23-year-old Reece Jarosiewicz from Barnsley. He has been with the yard since 2012 and victory today would mean more than his beloved Liverpool winning a trophy. “Everything. What wouldn’t it mean?” he says.
And then the horses, headed by the National contender, are led to the warm-up ring under the aforementioned Cook who will be hoping for better luck at Aintree after suffering early misfortune on Definitly Red, and then the Smith-trained I just Know, in the last two renewals. “These things happen,” he accepts.
Quietly assertive, he is also confident if the horse sees out the marathon trip. He has thought about tactics, but says that he is not obsessing about them. “Keep things simple,” says the 35-year-old. “For me, it’s just another race but it is a race I am desperate to win.”
Cook, who had never ridden a horse until he joined the Northern Racing College at the age of 16, has had to graft his way to pre-eminence as he became more assured as a jockey.
He leads the string down the drive and waits for the traffic to pass, before the horses safely cross a busy road and begin their work on the famous Smith gallops that include everything from pig hair to shredded carpet.
After two extended canters, each ending in a prolonged uphill gallop where the emphasis is on both speed and stamina, Cook confirms that Vintage Clouds is in the form of his life.
“That’s good,” adds Smith. “Danny is very experienced and knows what he is doing. Our job is to get the horse there (to Aintree). His job is to get the horse the rest of the way.”
If only it was so simple.
Age on the side of Clouds, if colour is not
VINTAGE Clouds will join an elite list of grey horses to win the Grand National if he prevails today.
The Lamb (1868 and 1871), Nicolaus Silver (1961) and Neptune Collonges (2012) are the only previous greys to have won the world’s greatest steeplechase.
As well as Vintage Clouds, other greys of note this year include Lake View Lad, who is also owned by Trevor Hemmings, and Ramses De Teillee.
However, there is a more favourable omen for the nine-year-old Vintage Clouds. Horses of this age have won the race on 45 previous occasions – more than any other age group.
The downside is that more rain than forecast has fallen at Aintree this week – and big race jockey Danny Cook believes his mount needs good ground to be seen at his most effective.