THE special relationship between farmers and National Hunt racing has always been intrinsic to the sport.
Peter Easterby saddled five Champion Hurdle winners at Cheltenham – and two Gold Cup heroes – while overseeing thousands of acres of arable farm in Ryedale.
Sirrell Griffiths famously milked his cows on the morning before driving Norton’s Coin to Cheltenham where his 100-1 outsider beat Desert Orchid in the 1990 Gold Cup.
Colin Tizzard was a dairy farmer before his stable was blessed by horses like Cue Card and Native River, favourites for next week’s Gold Cup.
And now Peter and Lucinda Atkinson, pig farmers from Northallerton, hope to land a blow for National Hunt die-hards when they run their mare Irish Roe in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at Cheltenham a week today.
Picked up as a three-year-old for a paltry £2,000, Irish Roe was sired by Vinnie Roe, who won four successive Irish St Legers from 2001-04 for legendary trainer Dermot Weld.
One of just two horses that the couple have in training – the 33-1 chance won her first two starts at Perth and Sedgefield – Middleham’s Henry Brooke was in the saddle for these wins – before dead-heating with My Khaleesi in a Listed race for mares at Cheltenham last November when ridden by Graham Lee. It took the horse’s prize money to in excess of £12,000.
With Brooke now fully recovered from life-threatening injuries suffered in a fall at Hexham last October, he resumes the partnership in this Grade One race won by future equine stars of the calibre of the aforementioned Cue Card, who prevailed in 2010.
Atkinson’s wife, Lucinda, is an international event rider and point-to-point trainer who says the prospect of a Cheltenham Festival runner is the “stuff of dreams”.
“We know what can happen with horses, and there is still a week to go, but the plan is still to head down there,” said Atkinson before the couple’s second horse, Reverant Cust, won at Newcastle yesterday under Finian O’Toole to showcase the yard’s wellbeing.
“She’s very easy to work. We take her up to Middleham with a point-to-pointer of ours and we think she’s in good form. She just does her work and that’s it, but, of course, we’ve never been in this situation before – this is all new to us. Whether we’ve done enough with her we won’t know until the day but all the signs suggest she’s in good form.
“Where else could you go with her? Yes, there’s Aintree, but we might never get the chance of another runner at Cheltenham again. It’s the stuff of dreams and she only cost £2,000.”
She continued: “Everywhere we go people are asking about her and cheering for us. The reaction to her win in November was incredible and we had no idea it would create such a stir.
“I think people enjoy the fact we are a small operation. She cost next to nothing and yet she’s running at the Cheltenham Festival. Fingers crossed she gets there first and then hopefully she can do herself justice. To be honest, we’re having to pinch ourselves.”
Meanwhile North Yorkshire-based Brian Hughes will be happy to have just one triumph next week. Second in the jockeys’ standings with a career best 123 winners to his names, he will, nevertheless, have to rely upon the patronage of Malton’s Malcolm Jefferson – his main trainer – and outside rides where possible.
Day one next Tuesday sees him ride Jefferson’s Cloudy Dream in the Arkle Trophy for two-mile novice chasers and the outsider Cyrius Darius in the Champion Hurdle.
Yet he is particularly keen on stablemate Double W’s chances in the concluding Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase.
The seven-year-old has had a decent first campaign over fences, winning at Carlisle and Wetherby as well as finishing second to Upsilon Bleu at Doncaster on his latest start.
“He’s a horse we love and has been running well,” said Hughes.
“We thought he was harshly done to early on in handicaps because he’d won a few OK handicaps. He won them well, but got put up a lot. Thankfully, the handicapper left him on 140 after his last run, which was a good run.”