Smith is sticking to winning formula in double bid

Sue Smith pictured with Mr Moonshine ridden by Shane Byrne on Bingley Moor. (Picture by Simon Hulme).
Sue Smith pictured with Mr Moonshine ridden by Shane Byrne on Bingley Moor. (Picture by Simon Hulme).
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THERE is nothing out of the ordinary as Sue and Harvey Smith’s right-hand man Ryan Clavin raises his arm firmly to stop the rush-hour traffic as a string of horses leave their stables and venture onto Baildon Moor.

They are a familiar sight to those regular commuters accustomed to Clavin, his poise strikingly similar to a policeman on horseback, asking cars to wait so his charges can head safely to the gallops.

On this occasion, the line of horses includes Mr Moonshine and Vintage Star – the two horses who will be vying to give the High Eldwick stable a second successive victory in the Grand National after the now retired Auroras Encore prevailed 12 months ago.

Out on the moor, and the two National horses hack off over the horizon under their respective riders, Shane Byrne and Jonathan England, while some of their stablemates have more strenuous exercise on the rolling gallops laid by Smith, the former show-jumper, and which include sundry items like tatty bits of used carpet to improve the texture.

As they emerge back into view, Mr Moonshine and Vintage Star slowly build up their pace ahead of a mile-long gallop for home ahead of today’s date with destiny.

Watching patiently from her Land Cruiser, Smith – just the third woman in history to train the National winner after Jenny Pitman and Venetia Williams – is content as she chats to her two riders before picking tufts of grass, still moist from the overnight dew, to feed to her two equine charges.

For, while the national media interest has been a distraction compared to 12 months ago when Auroras Encore and Mr Moonshine were largely unconsidered before the race, the trainer’s edginess of last year has been replaced by a calmness derived from the confidence of victory.

“It is the greatest horse race in the world and we have won it,” she told The Yorkshire Post. “Anybody who has anything to do with racing, they know it’s hard work in a very inhospitable climate at times during the winters for trainers and staff alike.

“To win a race like the National is fantastic for everybody, but we were straight back to work because you have to keep moving on with this sport and looking to the future. We’ve had a good season and the horses have run very, very well. All round, things have been good.

“The horses have done all their hard work. Today is just about letting them tick over and have a nice breeze up the gallop.”

Understandably, the Smiths have been keen to stick to last year’s formula which saw Auroras Encore and Mr Moonshine, who was pulled up in the National after his stamina faded, enjoy a racecourse gallop at Wetherby and be schooled over an Aintree-style fence at Malton.

The one discernible difference is the weather. A warming breeze blowing across the West Yorkshire moors could not offer a greater meteorological contrast to the snow and piercing winds blown in from Siberia during the corresponding week in 2013, and which blocked nearby roads.

As such, this year’s preparations have been far smoother – even though the Smith team prefer to quietly get on with their work without fuss rather than share the limelight. “We’ve always been everyday people, not your flash in the pan,” says the trainer’s husband.

The biggest quandary was whether the aforementioned Mania would ride Mr Moonshine – a horse in the form of his life and who was a creditable third in last December’s Becher Chase over the famous fences – or the second-season novice Vintage Star, who runs in the colours of Blackpool Tower owner Trevor Hemmings.

It was a tough call that saw the 25-year-old side with Mr Moonshine because of his previous sound jumping round Aintree, his two wins this season at Musselburgh and Warwick and the not insignificant fact that he is owned by the same trio – Jim Beaumont, Douglas Pryde and David van der Hoeven – whose blue and yellow colours were carried with such distinction by Auroras Encore.

Yet Mania would not be at all surprised if it was the eight-year-old Vintage Star, two years younger than Mr Moonshine, who pulled clear up the punishing final run-in under North Yorkshire jockey Brian Hughes. He acquired the ride after riding the Hemmings-owned Hawk Hill to Cheltenham Festival glory for Great Habton trainer Tim Easterby.

Smith can sympathise with her stable jockey’s dilemma and acknowledged the “loyalty” that he has shown to the Auroras Encore owners after they provided him with an opportunity and experience of a lifetime.

“We still don’t know if Mr Moonshine stays, do we?” ponders Smith as she watches her National hopefuls head out into the country.

“Vintage Star stays and he has run three very strong races this season in staying chases. He won at Carlisle, was second to Hey Big Spender in the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle and put up a good effort in the Welsh National.

“As for Moonshine, I think he can possibly stay the trip. He’s a better horse this year, he’s won two nice races and was second at Kelso when he hated the tacky ground. He’s in good form.”

In many respects, the jockey in the more enviable position is Hughes, who is on the 77-winner mark for the season – a new personal best – and who did not have to make such an invidious decision.

“The yards I ride for a lot don’t tend to have a National horse,” said Hughes, who grew up in Northern Ireland. “I’ve schooled the horse at Sue’s, popped him over a National fence and sat on him at Wetherby for a gallop.

“The Gold Cup is the best race when you are growing up, but the National is the one you want to ride in. Everyone knows about the Grand National. They don’t really know about the Gold Cup, the Derby or the champion this or that. But everyone does know who has won the National. It’s the biggest horse race in the world.”

Unlike Mania, who won the National at the first attempt, Hughes, 28, has yet to complete the course in three previous attempts and was unseated from Tidal Bay – today’s top weight – in the 2011 renewal. He’s not perturbed. “I’ll go out and give Vintage Star the best possible chance,” added Hughes with characteristic positivity.

Back at the yard, where Harvey Smith is scuttling around on his quad bike, sweat scrapers are used by Byrne and England to wash down their respective horses.

Byrne is a stalwart of the yard who could be riding in the National if he had not endured so many difficulties keeping his weight in check. England, however, is an up and coming young rider still buoyed by the experience of riding Cloudy Too in the Gold Cup despite unseating at the final fence.

Both are happy with their horses. A few yards away, Auroras Encore is looking out of his box and surveying the stables as he recovers from a career-ending injury. Ears pricked, he is wanting attention.

He made it look so easy last year. Now it is Mr Moonshine and Vintage Star’s turn. There is little to split them. As Sue Smith said: “If they put up good performances and come back safe – jockey and horse – that’s more important than winning.”