BY his own high standards, this has been the most frustrating year of David Pipe’s training career.
Runners, winners and prize money have been at their lowest since he took over his family’s training operation from his father Martin more than a decade ago.
Twenty eight triumphs this season, and just over £400,000 in prize money, compare with 100 winners and £2.4m a decade ago.
Yet this could change if Vieux Lion Rouge wins the £1m Randox Health Grand National 10 years after Pipe junior’s Comply Or Die won the famous race.
Seventh in the 2016 National when ridden by Saltburn jockey James Reveley, Vieux Lion Rouge was one of the favourites last year and cruised into contention under Tom Scudamore before fading to sixth behind One For Arthur.
Yet the horse – Old Red Lion in French – did win the 2016 Becher Chase over the National fences, overhauling the Henry Brooke-inspired Highland Lodge in the last stride, and Pipe hopes it could be third time lucky.
A slightly disappointing seventh to ante-post National favourite Blaklion in this season’s Becher Chase, the horse ran with credit at Ascot in February when fourth to Regal Encore, another Aintree contender, at Ascot.
“He has run in the last two Nationals and run well on both occasions. He has not quite got the trip, but he is stronger this year,” said Pipe.
“The first half of the season has not gone according to plan for him, though. In previous years he has got good form in the first half of the season and not the second. Hopefully the roles will be reversed this time.
“He likes the fences and jumps them better than park fences. He will be a bigger price than last year, but he doesn’t know that.
“It will be very nice to win it for his owners Caroline Tisdall and John Gent. Caroline has been big supporter of the yard and it is her dream to win the race.”
Uncharacteristically, Vieux Lion Rouge will be Pipe’s only runner in a race in which his aforementioned father once saddled 10 horses – a quarter of the field.
And his concern is that the nine-year-old is not in the form of Comply Or Die 10 years ago when he prevailed for jockey Timmy Murphy and David Johnson, the victor’s late owner.
Pipe said: “It feels like a long time ago. I suppose we really started to think he could be a National horse when he won the Eider. He stayed that trip and all he did is jump and gallop.
“He went there in good form and after that you just need a lot of luck. He popped from fence to fence and Timmy gave him a great ride. You could have called him the winner from a long way out, but you don’t want to be doing that.
“It was only when they got to the Elbow I started to believe he was going to do it, but even then it is a long run from there to the line and things can change, even though you don’t want to think that. It was an amazing achievement to say that I’ve done it in my career. There are plenty of better trainers that have never won the race. It was great to do it in my second season.”
Another horse hoping to win at the third attempt is the Ian Williams-trained Gas Line Boy.
The 12-year-old fell at the first fence in 2015 before coming home an excellent fifth last year – one place ahead of the aforementioned Vieux Lion Rouge.
He will once again be ridden by Robbie Dunne as he attempts to become the oldest horse to win the National since Ginger McCain’s Amberleigh House, also 12, won in 2004.
Nicky Henderson will wait until the weekend before deciding which of his big guns will run at next week’s Grand National meeting.
Queen Mother Champion Chase hero Altior, Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air and Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up Might Bite all have options on Merseyside.
He said: “They’ve all got a bit of work to do over the weekend and we’ve got to be very happy with that. That is going to finalise things.
“It’s just quite hard to read them. They can seem fresh and well and make you feel very happy in yourself, but you never quite know how much those races have taken out of them. Nobody got an easy race at Cheltenham this year because of the ground. We’re monitoring the situation.”