THE near silence on Malton’s sunlit gallops is interrupted by trainer Brian Ellison.
“Ready?” Ellison shouts out in the direction of jockey Danny Cook.
“Yes,” the rider replied instantaneously.
And then watching eyes turn to Cook and his athletic horse Definitly Red as they canter across the lush turf before jumping two fences in quick succession.
Over the first, the poker-faced jockey keeps a tight hold on the reins before his charge is more flamboyant at the second obstacle before pulling up.
This is no ordinary horse – and no ordinary schooling session.
Two weeks today, Definitly Red will carry Yorkshire’s hopes in the Randox Health Grand National – the world’s most famous steeplechase – and connections are determined that this popular horse will be foot perfect on the big occasion.
The hubbub of Aintree on National day, the cacophony of sound and noise cascading down the packed stands as the 40 runners go to post, could not be further removed from yesterday morning’s serenity on the idyllic Yorkshire Wolds, but connections are keen to familiarise the horse with the unique obstacles that he will face on April 8.
A relatively recent innovation, Aintree’s ground staff construct a set of replica fences at four locations – Malton, Lambourn, Devon and The Curragh in Ireland – which can be used for schooling purposes.
Similar in height to traditional steeplechase fences, which are about four and a half feet high, the difference is their breadth and green spruce synonymous with world-famous obstacles such as Becher’s Brook and The Chair.
However Ellison, who saddled his 1,000th career winner last summer, and Cook do not want eight-year-old Definitly Red to be so extravagant at his fences in case he loses too much energy, impetus or ground in a marathon four-and-a-quarter mile race settled by the shortest of short-heads five years ago when Neptune Collonges prevailed.
The National was also not the objective at the start of the season – trainer, jockey and owner Phil Martin, a retired businessman from Tickhill, all thought the race would come a year too early for this progressive second-season chaser.
Yet victory in Wetherby’s Rowland Meyrick Chase on Boxing Day left the horse favourably handicapped when the weights were published last month – and Definitly Red does not carry his penalty for his subsequent wide-margin win in Doncaster’s Grimthorpe Chase, which carried the horse to the top of the National’s ante-post betting.
Sired by Definite Article out of the dam The Red Wench, the horse’s unusual spelling reputedly comes from point-to-point trainer Bryan Marshall being given an incorrect spelling of the word ‘definitely’ when filling out the registration forms in a traditional Irish hostelry.
Naturally shy, Sheffield-born Martin, 65, is pensive as he and Ellison head across Malton in the trainer’s Range Rover to watch the horse, who is accompanied by stablemate The Grey Taylor.
Despite having 40 runners in training – he always promised himself a horse if successful in business – he is a much-respected owner slightly uncomfortable in the limelight.
“If Brian’s happy, I’m happy,” he replies when asked about his expectations as Definitly Red, a striking chestnut horse, inspects the fence before the serious work begins.
This important piece of work is over in a matter of seconds – Ellison delighted with his horse’s scope at the second fence while Cook, 33, still wants Definitly Red to be a bit more nimble.
Yet this is a jockey, on the 47-winner mark for the current campaign and two short of his career best, whose outlook could not be further removed than it was in 2010 when he and Pablo Du Charmil parted company at the second fence in the National.
His only previous experience of the National, he walked the course beforehand with fellow rider Johnny Farrelly joking about the food they would order in hospital that evening.
Now the 33-year-old, stable jockey to Sue and Harvey Smith, is having to become accustomed to the media spotlight as he is photographed removing a set of bandages from Definitly Red’s legs before washing down the horse. He says the replica fences are a “good initiative”.
“It’s nice to put the minds of owners and trainers at ease,” he tells The Yorkshire Post before highlighting the gelding’s physical prowess.
“He looks quite big in Brian’s yard, but that’s because there are loads of Flat horses. Put him alongside the Smith horses and you’ll see how small he actually is. It’s great to be part of the National again, it’s been a few years, but it’s great to be part of the National with a live chance.”
As the jockey finishes hosing down the horse, Ellison and Martin return to the yard.
The owner winds down the car window.
“Danny, how was that?” he asks. “It was good,” says the jockey reassuringly. “Very good,” replies Martin earnestly. “I can’t tell a right lot, but he seemed to get over the fences all right.”
He adds by way of explanation: “He’s so well handicapped that we’ve got to give it a go. The Last Samuri won the Grimthorpe last year and was second at Aintree. Our hands are forced.”
Though Ellison’s Spring Cottage Stables are used to big-race success thanks to horses like former Ebor winner Moyenne Corniche, Top Notch Tonto and Seamour, the anticipation is tangible as Definitly Red’s every move is watched.
Confident the horse is fit enough, Ellison, who has 120 horses in training, asks Cook if he can attend another schooling session next week. Nothing is being left to chance. They know they may never get a better opportunity to win the Grand National – not least because form and fitness is so fragile and fickle.
“One day at a time,” says the trainer as the countdown to Aintree begins.