SUE and Harvey Smith have been synonymous with staying steeplechasers for nearly three decades.
Yet, like all horses at their High Eldwick stables, they have to learn the very basics of jumping over smaller obstacles and any early success is an added bonus.
And few have done so as impressively as Midnight Shadow, a 25-1 winner of Ayr’s Scottish Champion Hurdle.
A chaser in the making, those least surprised by the eyecatching win were the winning connections and jockey Danny Cook.
They’ve always had much faith in Aafke Clarke’s horse who has been riding in elite races for much of the season.
Seventh to Lalor in a Grade One hurdle at Aintree just eight days before this contest, Midnight Shadow took advantage of a favourable weight – and drying ground.
Always prominent, Irish Roe, owned and trained by Northallerton’s Peter and Lucinda Atkinson, looked a big threat before Cook’s mount took up the running two out.
Midnight Shadow, still only five and running in the same colours as Smooth Stepper who won Kelso’s big chase earlier this month, looked around on the approach to the last before clearing the final flight and surging clear.
Having ridden him more conservatively on heavier ground, Cook said he had no qualms about riding his mount more prominently because of the conditions.
“He’s one we’re looking forward to for the next few years,” said Cook who was recording his 48th win of the campaign.
“He’s only a five-year-old. He’s a big strong five. One hundred per cent when he’s older, he will be a staying chaser.”
That was confirmed by Smith who was recording one of her more notable wins over hurdles since she took out her training licence and saddled her first winner in 1990.
Though the Scottish Champion Hurdle is now a handicap rather than a conditions race won previously by those legends Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon from Peter Easterby’s Great Habton stables, it’s still a Grade Two contest of stature.
“Harvey bought him at Doncaster Sales as a four-year-old,” the 2013 Grand National-winning trainer told The Yorkshire Post.
“We’ve always known he was a nice horse and, to be fair, he beat a good horse at Uttoxeter earlier in the season. He’s been running in good races at Haydock and Aintree.
“I’m delighted with him. He’s done nothing wrong all season and he’s obviously appreciated this ground today. He’s just done nothing but progress so we’re really delighted.”
Asked if Midnight Legend will go chasing next season, she confirmed: “All being well.”
Meanwhile the Grand National will be the ultimate objective for Smith’s Vintage Clouds after the consistent grey put up another fine performance to finish third in the Scottish Grand National.
Prominently ridden by the aforementioned Cook, and leading as the field turned for home, he just couldn’t go with the eventual winner Joe Farrell who just held on grimly from Ballyoptic in this four-mile marathon.
It took a photo-finish to separate the two rivals, with Farrell’s win, under Adam Wedge, a rich reward for trainer Rebecca Curtis who had endured a quiet season by her high standards.
She travelled for over 10 hours from her stables in west Wales to Ayr to keep the horse box driver company on the long trip. “We’ve had a difficult season. I thought it was a big ask. He’s still a novice for a big race like that, but I knew he’d stay all day,” said Curtis.
“He wanted a bit better ground, so that was brilliant. It’s my first time in Scotland. He idled at the end in front. If he’d have got beaten on the line, I’d have been gutted. Watching it, I thought he had held on – I hoped he had.
“I own a quarter of him. I bought him quite cheaply. He had broken down on both his front legs. I took a chance with him and thankfully it’s all paid off.”
Meanwhile Bigmartre held off Cobra De Mai to win the Future Champion Novices’ Chase for trainer Harry Whittington and jockey Harry Bannister whose family run The Coniston Hotel near Skipton.
In a race littered with jumping errors, Bigmartre made the least number of errors to provide Bannister with one of the most significant wins of his career.
“He’s got so much heart and he’s a fantastic jumper,” he said.