THE smiles in the picture say it all. This is the morning after nine minutes and 12 seconds of scintillating steeplechasing that ended Yorkshire’s 53-year wait for a Grand National winner.
As Auroras Encore poses for cameras, the palpable pride is etched across the faces of Harvey and Sue Smith after the horse’s shock 66-1 triumph, while winning jockey Ryan Mania shows few effects from a virtually sleepless night.
Yet, as the 11-year-old horse pricks his ears in symmetry with the clicking of the camera lenses, the carpet of snow outside the stables on the rugged moorland above Bingley and Baildon is indicative of the difficulties that Smith, the legendary showjumper, and his wife, had faced.
Five days earlier on the Tuesday of the National week, Smith had been battling to keep its gallops open as the latest snow flurries arrived from Siberia.
It was one man against the elements – and he had to win this unequal struggle. For, unless Auroras Encore could undergo one final piece of work alongside stablemate Mr Moonshine who ran with honour at Aintree before being pulled up, the chances of both horses would have been over before the final declarations had been announced.
As such, it is testament to the strength in depth of Yorkshire sport that Sue and Harvey Smith’s historic victory, and their work ethic, saw them finish an impressive and deserved third in our search for this county’s sporting hero of 2013.
This will reward the winning entry chosen at random with two tickets to a day of hospitality to the third Test between England and Sri Lanka at Headingley in June 2014, a prize presented in association with Yorkshire County Cricket Club.
Many of those who voted for the no-nonsense husband and wife team had been captivated by Sue Smith’s assertion in the hallowed Aintree winner’s enclosure that the success could be attributed to her husband because he “makes everybody work harder”.
The personification of Yorkshire grit and determination, this was self-evident on the critical morning of the final gallop when the wind-chill was bone-aching at best.
The plan had been to work Auroras Encore at Mr Moonshine at 8am. Yet it had become clear that Smith’s all-weather gallop, which he had dug himself, was likely to be frozen in places.
Wrapped in layers of clothes, and a rather fetching woollen hat, he spent countless hours harrowing his gallops – scuttling across his rolling land on his quad bike – until he was finally satisfied, some hours later, that they were safe.
In her mud-splattered car parked by the side of the gallops, Sue Smith was being less than complimentary about the weather, even though she did credit her husband as “the best gallops man in the business”.
The tension was only broken momentarily when this correspondent ventured “Don’t worry Sue, it will be worth it when you win the National on Saturday” in a bid to ease the pessimism – and nerves – ahead of the big race.
A long winter had taken its toll. There had been four days the previous week when some staff could not even reach Craiglands Farm which is situated 1,000 feet above sea level. Not one other racing yard in the country had endured such adversity.
Yet, while both horses had been written off by most as no-hopers, I will never forget the sight of the pair striding up the gallop on the first of three circuits that would determine their fitness.
As Auroras Encore and Mr Moonshine finally passed for the first time, the Smiths were visibly relieved. They relaxed, slightly, on the second circuit and then the final gallop in which Auroras Encore strode clear of Mr Moonshine in the manner of a horse that would thrive at Aintree if he could handle the 30 fearsome fences and four mile three furlong race.
“He’s rippin’,” said Smith with succinctness. An economy of words has remained his trademark. His wife concured. As she rushed out of her Jeep, she shouted: “That Auroras, he’s in right order.”
Against all odds, this indefatigable couple – who trained their first winner in 1990 – had used their lifelong work with horses, first showjumpers and then steeplechasers, to get their National contenders into the form of their lives.
Of course there were other factors. Auroras Encore was well-handicapped and has always been a horse who likes the sun on his back. In a stroke of luck, National day was positively mild. And then there was the horse’s nerveless jockey Mania, who had clearly learned from previous rides over the National fences and did not panic when the pacesetting Teaforthree and Oscar Time kicked for home.
By the time Auroras Encore jumped the final fence, he was clear and joining the elite list of riders who had won the National at the first attempt while Smith was becoming the third female trainer, after Jenny Pitman (twice) and Venetia Williams, to win the famous race. That they had done so with a horse that Smith, himself, had purchased at Doncaster Sales for a bargain £9,000 made this result even more remarkable – and surprising – to everyone, except this endearing couple and their team of owners, jockeys, work riders and stable staff.
Within five hours of this photograph being taken, the aforementioned Mania was being airlifted to hospital with back and neck injuries after suffering a crashing fall in his first ride since he crossed the Aintree winning line in triumph.
That he made a swift recovery, after two painful nights in hospital, mattered as much as Auroras Encore’s victory itself. For this is a sport where its combatants are never more than a fence away from calamity – or glory.
Our champion, and recipient of the award sponsored by Jackson Trophies – plus our competition winner – will be revealed on Saturday. Tomorrow, find out who finished second.