JIMMY MOFFATT took to heart the trenchant advice that he was given at the outset of his training career.
He had just begun a stint assisting Harvey and Sue Smith, two of his all-time heroes, when the redoubtable former showjumper pulled him to one side.
Stood in the stables at Craiglands Farm on Baildon Moor, Smith looked his protégé in the eye on the first morning and declared in his customary no nonsense manner: “There are three types of people. Them that make things happen. Them that watch things happen. And them that wonder what the bloody hell has happened. Which are you?”
Nearly 15 years later, Moffatt makes a more than passable impression of his idol – but his respect is absolute after a year spent at racing’s ‘university of life’.
“Do you know something?” he said. “You’ve got to make things happen in life. Harvey was right. I love him, absolutely love him. He’s a genius.”
Moffatt was speaking exclusively to The Yorkshire Post ahead of today’s Randox Health Becher Chase over Aintree’s fearsome Grand National fences in which his stable star Highland Lodge will be bidding to win for a second time in three years.
Victorious in 2015 to provide North Yorkshire jockey Henry Brooke with the biggest win of his career, the courageous Highland Lodge was on the brink of winning last year’s renewal when Tom Scudamore’s mount, Vieux Lion Rouge, got up in the final stride of a pulsating race.
Today’s race sees last year’s protagonists face a quality field headed by Grand National fourth Blaklion trained by the in-form Nigel Twiston-Davies and Kim Bailey’s course specialist The Last Samuri, with the aforementioned Smiths represented by Straidnahanna.
Though Highland Lodge ran prominently in this year’s National, he didn’t see out the marathon trip and today’s extended three-mile test has always been the primary target for the 11-year-old.
Yet the stakes are high. Moffatt, who took over the training licence from his father Dudley at the family’s Cartmel stables in 2003, only has 20-plus horses and needs high-profile days like this to count.
Key is the one-time rider’s instinct – he knows the lightly-raced Highland Lodge, transformed since being switched to his Lake District yard a month before his 2015 Becher win, is best when fresh.
It means the horse, acquired by David and Patricia Thompson of Cheveley Park Stud before this year’s National, has been trained on Moffatt’s gallop which rises 302 feet from bottom to top.
“The horse is fine and never missed a day since coming in at the end of July,” reported Moffatt, 45, who credits his experience at Craiglands Farm, and its wide expanse, for learning about the topography of land and how to optimise the land at your disposal.
“His programme has mirrored last year’s preparation. I’m not sure you can say the horse is still improving, he’s 12 on New Year’s Day, but his wellbeing is fantastic and we are very hopeful.”
Do you know something? You’ve got to make things happen in life. Harvey was right. I love him, absolutely love him. He’s a genius.Jimmy Moffatt
What makes Highland Lodge so special? “I don’t know,” says Moffatt who is momentarily lost for his words. “He’s a big horse which helps at Aintree.
“He enjoys the TLC and runs well fresh. He’s a handful at home, very quick on his feet.
“Up our hill, it’s like interval training. We can put different horses together and assess their speed. I rode him a fortnight ago, but that was enough. Far too close to the big race. Far too nerve-wracking. I leave it to Charlotte Jones.”
Moffatt, a familiar sight on racecourses with his Trilby hat and cigarette in his mouth, is no stranger to big race success.
After riding Home Counties to victory at the 1995 Cheltenham Festival, he joined an elite club who have also trained a winner at jump racing’s ultimate meeting when Chief Dan George prevailed at the National Hunt Festival in 2010. Yet some critics suggested he was “a one-trick pony” who had got lucky. Chief Dan George’s other successes included a Grade One hurdle. The criticism motivated him. “I hope Highland Lodge, winning the Becher and second last year, proves that we’re not,” he says pointedly.
It’s also been a roller-coaster of emotions. When Highland Lodge and Brooke won in 2015, the horse was owned by Simon and Julie Wilson and led up by their teenage son Patrick who was dying from cancer.
Moffatt says three miracles happened that day. The horse won, he beat Storm Desmond’s torrent of floods on the journey home and woke up the next day to find that the most vulnerable parts of his new gallop (built to that man Smith’s specifications with regard to drainage) had not been washed away. Last year, the race was Brooke’s first big test since suffering life-threatening injuries in a horrid fall at Hexham. An emotional victory looked probable – until the final stride.
“One of the bravest things I’ve ever seen,” says Moffatt. “If the riderless horse had not set Highland Lodge alight over the first half dozen fences, it’s quite easy to say he would have been two inches further forward on the line.
“The horse just wandered about it on the run-in and Tom Scu’ just took advantage of it on Vieux Lion Rouge. He’s a very big horse and is about as manoeuvrable as an oil tanker in a storm. You take it on the chin. These things happen.”
Highland Lodge’s success has also led Moffatt to reappraise his operation. “A few years back, we had Chief Dan George and a lot of rubbish. Now we don’t like having horses rated below 100. “If you have a horse rated 120 and one rated 80, they are both as hard to train – but only one can race for decent prize money.”
Moffatt will decide after today’s race if Highland Lodge will be entered in next year’s National. If he did, he’d like the horse ridden more conservatively.
However, as a trainer who believes in making things happen, he did make this promise. “If he wins the race, I’ll stop smoking,” says Moffatt who took up the habit during his riding days when he was trying to keep his weight under control. “But I won’t be doing so during the race. I’ll be standing on my own jumping every fence.”