JIMMY MOFFATT is confident that the veteran Highland Lodge will continue a remarkable run of success in the Becher Chase, Aintree’s Grand National trial over its world famous fences.
Victorious in 2015 under North Yorkshire jockey Henry Brooke, this quirky horse was runner-up 12 months later after being agonisingly caught on the line before finishing a brave third last year.
Now 12 years of age, time is catching up with this frontrunning steeplechaser whose performances over Aintree’s fearsome fences are far superior to his recent runs on more conventional racecourses.
Yet, while Moffatt says today’s race is Highland Lodge’s National as he renews his rivalry with 2016 and 2017 victors Vieux Lion Rouge and Blaklion respectively, he is remarkably relaxed.
“When he trained at West Witton, Ferdy Murphy told me that ‘pressure is for tyres’,” an ebullient Moffatt told The Yorkshire Post. “I’m not nervous. I’m looking forward to it.”
His relaxed demeanour, characterised by a smoker’s laugh, is illustrated by the roar of laughter when it is pointed out that he uses his Sunday name ‘James Moffatt’ on his answerphone message.
“I was christened Dudley James – Dudley after my father, who rode, and James in honour of my grandfather,” said the popular Lake District trainer who came to the fore a decade ago with his astute handling of top novice hurdler, and subsequent Cheltenham Festival winner, Chief Dan George.
“And then they called me Jimmy. It’s always been a state of perpetual confusion. My wife, though, calls me ‘Jimmy’ and she’s the boss.”
Fortunately there is no confusion over the jovial Moffatt’s ability to train a racehorse and, specifically, play to the strengths of Highland Lodge whose idiosyncrasies mean that he has only raced six times since the chaser, previously trained by Emma Lavelle, was acquired in November 2015.
This was just weeks before the horse’s Becher Chase success when Moffatt says three miracles happened – the horse won, he got the box home before roads were cut off by floods and that he woke the next morning to find his new gallop had not been washed away thanks to typically forthright advice proffered by the legendary showjumper Harvey Smith.
Yet, while some trainers prefer to keep plans fluid, Moffatt relishes the challenge with Highland Lodge whose third place finish in last year’s Becher in the colours of Cheveley Park Stud was followed by a very below-par run at Haydock.
A last minute absentee from April’s Topham Chase over Aintree’s National fences due to an abscess, he is not perturbed by the long lay-off ahead of this three mile-plus race. “I think he does run well fresh,” says Moffatt who believes soft ground, and a favourable weight of 10st 1lb towards the bottom of the handicap, are other significant advantages.
“He also takes everything in. People have said he is a spooky bugger. If there’s a box of matches on the gallop that wasn’t there the day before, he thinks ‘what the hell is this?’ He hasn’t changed.
“He also jumps a regulation fence like a National fence. He gives them a bit of air which is what you need to do at Aintree to avoid coming down. And every time I take him there, he’s a different horse.
“From the moment you bring down the ramp on the horsebox, his tail is swishing and he knows where he is. Take him to Ayr or Haydock and he’s not the same. Even when he ran in the 2017 National and was pulled up because the ground was a bit too quick he put up a hell of a performance.”
Yet, while three-time National winner Red Rum was another horse who came alive at Aintree, Moffatt is buoyed by Highland Lodge’s well-being on the gallops in recent weeks.
For, while he concedes that his second runner Just A Par is likely to be “as slow as a boat to China”, Highland Lodge has, despite his advancing years, been outperforming stablemates like Lough Kent who Moffatt uses as a yardstick to assess form and fitness.
“It would have been 1-5 on that Lough Kent would have beaten Highland Lodge up my gallop, but he didn’t,” reported the ever enthusiastic trainer.
“Horses that run so infrequently are not easy to train, but I’m hopeful. He’s done it three times for us – he’s brilliant – and, with a bit of luck, we will be in the first four.”