AS Grand National winner Auroras Encore prepares to continue his comeback in Doncaster’s feature Sky Bet Chase today, co-owner Jim Beaumont’s expectations could not be more realistic.
“Come back sound, that’s all that matters. Anything else will be a bonus,” said the octogenarian ahead of today’s three-mile race on Town Moor against steeplechasing’s emerging stars like the grey Unioniste.
Beaumont’s sentiment is shared by the horse’s trainer Sue Smith – and also Ryan Mania who was in the saddle when Auroras Encore became the first Yorkshire winner of the National in 53 years last April.
They know conditions are unfavourable; the ground is softer than ideal and the distance is nearly a mile and a half shorter than the Aintree marathon and the 12-year-old remains handicapped to the hilt following his National heroics, which saw him raised 11lb in the weights.
It is no surprise, given this mindset, that Bindaree, the 2002 National winner, is the last horse to win another after conquering Aintree’s unique test.
Yet Auroras Encore, the horse that gave a ‘bucking bronco’ demonstration at last summer’s Great Yorkshire Show, remains in fine fettle and needs to be kept ticking over before the £1m Crabbies Grand National in April when he will attempt to become the first horse since Red Rum 40 years ago to win successive renewals of the race.
“He will be doing his best – he always does – but I will be pleasantly surprised if he troubles the judge,” Beaumont told the Yorkshire Post. “We are not expecting to win, but there are so few options for him.
“There’s the Grand National Trial at Haydock in three weeks time and that is about it. He was fine at Wetherby in the Rowland Meyrick. As long as he puts in a nice round of jumping and comes back sound.”
Beaumont, a bellboy at Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel in his childhood, has become a racing celebrity in Edinburgh – and the Scottish Borders – since Auroras Encore won the National at 66-1, opening flower shows and attending countless charity functions.
However, he does note that it will be “difficult” for Auroras Encore to win another race – whether it be the National or a more modest contest – because of the horse’s hike in the handicap, and he would like to see greater recognition given to the commitment and professionalism of 24-year-old Mania.
“About two or three years ago, the horse missed a season with an injury and Sue and Harvey Smith said the break would do Auroras the world of good towards the end of his career. They were right,” observed Beaumont.
“Yet the horse is not getting any younger at the age of 12 and Sue did ask the handicapper if he’d drop the horse a couple of pounds so he could get into one of the veterans’ races.
“It is disappointing that they did not do so; people would like to see the horse run.
“As for Ryan, I’m still not sure he’s getting the rides he deserves. Sue is his first trainer but I would have thought there would have been trainers across Yorkshire, and the North, queuing up to use him.
“He should be getting better rides – you forget the National win was his first ride in the race – and I know he spends a hell of a lot of time riding out for small trainers in the Scottish Borders.”
Given Beaumont’s realism, local Sky Bet Chase hopes rest with course and distance winner Night In Milan for the Saltburn trainer Keith Reveley and his jockey son James.
Night In Milan pulled clear of Mania on the Smith-trained De Boitron in December.
Mart Lane and Baile Anrai, third and fourth respectively that day, are again in opposition, but Reveley reports his horse to be in fine shape.
“He ran really well at Doncaster last time and went up 8lb. This is a tougher race, but he’s in great form and we’ll have a go,” he said.
“He jumped brilliant last time. I’m hoping he jumps as well again, but it is a hot race.”
Paul Nicholls is bullish about the chances of Unioniste, the top weight and class horse in the race.
The six-year-old, third in Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase, is the youngest horse in the line-up but has posted important victories at Cheltenham and Aintree and even took his chance in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown last month – though he was well beaten by Bobs Worth.
“Harry Derham takes 5lb off, which will be handy,” said this season’s leading trainer. “He actually rode him when he won the Stewart Family Gold Cup at Cheltenham. We ran him in the Lexus over Christmas and he wasn’t beaten too far.
“But I still don’t think he performed to his best that day.
“They didn’t go a real good gallop and he sprinted away from the back of the second-last and he stayed on strongly. The softer the ground, the better for him, and he’s obviously down in class from running in the Lexus. He must have an outstanding chance.”
A compelling card also sees the aforementioned Smith and Mania run Blakemount in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle against Urban Hymn for the in-form team of Malton trainer Malcolm Jefferson and jockey Brian Hughes who prevailed yesterday with The Panama Kid.
Much interest will also revolve around the possible participation of 2012 Stan James Champion Hurdle winner Rock On Ruby in the Grade Two Racing Post Lighting Novices’ Chase.
Trainer Harry Fry and jockey Noel Fehily want to get some more valuable racecourse jumping experience into the nine-year-old, hopefully ahead of a bid at the Racing Post Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham in March.
However, Fry will not risk his stable star on soft ground – the reason that Rock On Ruby did not appear at Doncaster earlier this month.
Fry said: “It doesn’t need to get any softer. He’s all ready to go. His schooling’s been good, he’s been doing lots of that at home. This has been the plan and we are keen to run, there’s just that question mark about the ground. We’ve got other options in a fortnight if we don’t go. We’re looking forward to seeing him out over fences again.”
If Rock On Ruby does run against Valdez, a Cheltenham aspirant from Alan King’s yard, Fehily will be brimming with confidence after the veteran brought up his first century of winners aboard Easydoesit at Doncaster yesterday.
“I’m delighted. I’ve had a great run of it and I’ve been very lucky riding for Charlie Longsdon all year, his horses have been absolutely flying,” said Fehily who will partner Emma Lavelle’s Gullinbursti in the Sky Bet Chase.
“He’s been a great help to me as has Harry Fry, Warren Greatrex, Charlie Mann and Tony Carroll who has supported me over the years. I rode 89 winners a few years back. That was my best season. I thought I’d get to 100, but not in January. It’s always nice to have some nice horses to ride as well, Silviniaco Conti won the King George and we’ll look forward to him now in the Gold Cup and see if he can do the business there.”