TOM SCUDAMORE is looking forward to extending a modern-day Aintree record when Vieux Lion Rouge lines up in this weekend’s Randox Health Becher Chase over the world famous Grand National fences.
The David Pipe-trained staying steeplechaser took his tally of successive obstacles safely negotiated at the Merseyside track to 183 when finishing unplaced in this year’s National behind dual winner Tiger Roll.
And this sequence – courtesy of four National runs and three further appearances in the Becher Chase – surpassed the feat of the phenomenal Manifesto when the race was still in its infancy.
Fourth in 1895, he promptly fell at the first fence 12 months later, before successfully completing the National’s 30 iconic fences – including Becher’s Brook and The Chair – in all six subsequent starts.
Victorious in 1897 and 1899, this gallant horse was placed in 1900, 1902 and 1903 – his riders included Lester Piggott’s grandfather Ernest – before finishing a heroic eighth in 1904 at the venerable age of 16 and when asked to carry an improbable 12st 1lb.
As Anne Holland’s evocative new book, The Grand National, reveals, Manifesto holds the record winning weight (12 stone 7lb) and record weight for a horse placed in the race (12st 13lb).
And while Scudamore accepts that Vieux Lion Rouge – French for ‘Old Red Lion’ – is unlikely to win a National at this stage of the 10-year-old’s career, the horse’s Becher Chase win three years ago remains one of the highlights of the 37-year-old’s meritorious career because of the challenge and quality of pursuers who included The Last Samuri and One For Arthur.
Conscious that the Becher Chase – one-and-a-half circuits of the Aintree course – was only added to the racing calendar after more recent National greats, like Red Rum and West Tip, both completed five successive Nationals without mishap, the fences are still regarded as the ultimate test of horse and rider despite recent safety modifications.
Asked to explain Vieux Lion Rouge’s affinity for the track, Scudamore was typically honest – “I haven’t a clue” – before explaining the steeplechaser’s special characteristics and the horse’s popularity with the racing public.
“He’s enjoyed it round there and, the most important thing, he’s been sound. That has helped him,” Scudamore told The Yorkshire Post. “He has been sound, tough and durable. He’s been able to go back to the National four times and, hopefully, it will be his fourth Becher Chase this Saturday.”
Though owners Professor Caroline Tisdall and John Gent always had high hopes for Vieux Lion Rouge after the horse won his first three steeplechase starts in 2015, he unseated Scudamore at Cheltenham.
And it was only when he lined up in the 2016 National as a novice – North Yorkshire rider James Reveley was in the saddle – that Vieux Lion Rouge finally showed his undoubted prowess. Seventh that year, he’s been sixth, ninth and 15th in subsequent runnings – the marathon four-and-a-quarter-mile trip has just found the gelding’s stamina out in the closing stages.
But it is the Becher Chase, over a mile less, where the horse has excelled. Victorious in December 2016 when he caught the Henry Brooke-ridden Highland Lodge in the final stride, a seventh place finish in 2017 was followed by another brave run 12 months ago when just failing to chase down Walk In The Mill.
“Running him in the National as a novice made a man of him,” explained Scudamore. “I always thought he would be a nice staying chaser, and even though he won three times, he fell at Cheltenham and was a little bit hit and miss.
“David (Pipe) schooled him over National fences at home one day and he was a different class. it just gave him another lift. The one thing is that he is fearless and agile.”
Scudamore, whose late grandfather Michael won the 1959 National on Oxo, thought he was in with a chance of winning the world’s greatest steeplechase in 2017 when he cleared Becher’s Brook for the second time. He recalls thinking how well he was travelling until he caught a glance of the now retired Noel Fehily on the pacesetting Blaklion. “And neither of us won it.” This, after all, was the year when Scudamore’s father Peter, the multiple champion jockey, teamed up with Scottish trainer Lucinda Russell to win the race with One For Arthur who was given a nerveless hold-up ride by Derek Fox.
And while Vieux Lion Rouge also won Haydock’s Grand National Trial in February 2017, he saves his best for Aintree. “He’s a proper Saturday horse,” added the rider. “People who go to Haydock and Aintree, they have an affinity with him. They really respond to these horses who turn up each year. It’s all systems go for Saturday – hopefully we can go one better than last year.”