Nick Seddon makes the long journey north to chat to trainer Lucinda Russell, who is heading into the spring campaign with leading chances in two of jumps racing’s crown jewels; the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Randox Grand National…
While the four to six weeks or so leading up to the Cheltenham Festival are a time of immense excitement, they are also a period to dread for the cars that are unlucky enough to be owned by a member of the racing media – as the only thing on the horizon is mileage, mileage and more milage.
It’s a picturesque journey that can take you from Somerset to Warwickshire with Ireland in between, though racing journalists are not particularly well known for their hardiness, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise to learn that no other members of the press room had braved the six-hour drive up to Arlary House Stables on a particularly bright morning in March.
There has been plenty of success for the yard in recent years and pictures of victories in the Grand National with One For Arthur and the Scottish Grand National with Mighty Thunder adorn the walls of Lucinda Russell’s office, but there is a feeling that having a key runner in this year’s Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup with Ahoy Senor certainly takes the yard to the tippy-top of racing’s elite.
The eight year old announced himself on the scene as a novice hurdler, producing a 66-1 shock when storming to victory in a Grade One race at the Randox Grand National Festival at Aintree in 2021, though Russell feels that we may not yet have seen the best of Ahoy Senor, who put his hat firmly into the Gold Cup equation when winning the Grade Two Paddy Power Cotswold Chase on Festival Trials Day in January.
She said: “He’s always been a spring horse and I wasn’t sure about running him in the Cotswold Chase, but the half-owners said that they wanted him to have more practice around Cheltenham. They were right as he ran a fabulous race.
“His season had started poorly at Wetherby but I think he’s just growing up now and every race that he has helps him. We’re not protecting him and waiting for the right race - running him more often has proven to be quite a good thing. He’s always run a race within a month of the Grand National Festival (where he’s won twice), so hopefully the Cotswold Chase will put him right for the Gold Cup.
“There’s still a little bit more improvement needed with his jumping but his confidence is much higher now, which is good. I just loved the way he came round that home bend (in the Cotswold Chase) after dropping back a touch, like he did in the Brown Advisory last year. He just shoots up that home bend before powering up the hill and if he can do that again next week that would be fine!”
Priced as a 16-1 chance by the bookmakers at the time of writing, Ahoy Senor would be a poignant winner of the Gold Cup as he was part-owned by Russell’s late father Peter Russell, who sadly passed away age 95 in the week leading up to the Cotswold Chase. And she explained that Ahoy Senor, who is known as Hank around the yard, played a key part in keeping her father’s spirits up.
She said: “My dad was very enthusiastic about anything I did and I’m lucky that he lived here as I’d see him all the time, so he was very much a part of things and a part of the business.
“I don’t think dad appreciated just how good he was to start with and then he kept winning and when he won at Aintree as a novice hurdler I remember he was just in tears and so excited.
“I then had a year where Hank was getting better and better as a novice and dad’s health was unfortunately failing. It was good to have a horse like that though as he offered my dad something to keep following.”
It would be easy for Russell and her team to feel like the little guys when they are so far away from most of the sport’s top prizes, but she has a key ally in the form of her partner and eight-time champion jockey Peter Scudamore, who provides the perfect yin to Russell’s yang.
The pair do the majority of their travelling to the big meetings in the rather modest surroundings of their camper van, which is rather full once each of Russell, Scudamore and their three dogs are accounted for – but it is something which Scudamore, who himself rode 13 Cheltenham Festival winners, feels has given them a different perspective.
He said: “I am a southerner and we used to look at the Scots and think ‘oh look at the dear little Scottish people coming down’ but now I feel we have commanded a respect, which is what I wanted to do.
“The reason we do well is that Luce and myself dovetail and she brings things to the table that I can’t. I couldn’t feed and I couldn’t do the veterinary things and I don’t have the brains to do the books, so she runs all that.
“But you’ll have noticed that I’m on the gallops and I’m with the jockeys and we discuss in a very mature manner the instructions. I tend to give the orders, having discussed it with her. It’s my way, there’s different ways of doing things and I would like to think that’s where it all comes from. If you’re playing for a manager who believes in you I think that just gives you so much more confidence to go out there and do your thing.
“We’ve been to Kempton, Cheltenham and Aintree in that silly little van and we stay with the stable staff and because of that we see the care that these people put into it. We feel honoured to be allowed into that world. The camper van has brought us something that we didn’t think we’d get and I really enjoyed that part of it.”
Russell and Scudamore have another key runner at the Cheltenham Festival this year in the form of Corach Rambler, who will aim for back-to-back victories in the Ultima Handicap Chase before hopefully taking his chance in the Grand National four weeks later – for which he is the current 12-1 second favourite.
Regardless of how he fares this spring Corach Rambler will always have a special place in the heart of Russell, who provided the yard with their second victory at the Festival – 10 years on from Brindisi Breeze’s success in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle under the late Campbell Gillies.
She said: “What was really nice about that day and it goes back to our family feel in the yard, is that the owners of One For Arthur (Belinda McClung and Deborah Thomson, the Two Golf Widows) were in the box for the four days and it was as if they’d won.
“They were so proud and so pleased for Corach’s owners and it was just brilliant, they’re a syndicate of seven people and some of them had never had a horse before. They’re so together and it’s lovely and it meant a lot.
“It was nice to be able to celebrate it as I wasn’t wide-eyed and stunned by it all – we could appreciate it and enjoy it.”
The inevitable question about what success in either the Gold Cup or the Grand National would mean to the team follows, but it is the ethos of the yard which is more important to Russell than any victory.
She explained: “It’s funny, people ask what things mean to you and there’s so many things on so many different levels. If Corach Rambler wins it’s a personal thing because Scu does so much with him, but if Ahoy Senor wins it’s about everything that we believe in at the yard.
“It’s about everybody working here behind the scenes and the intensity that we have and that is what’s being showcased. Ahoy Senor is a fabulous horse but he has got his little bits that are good and bad – like his jumping and stuff – and Derek (Fox) has had to see that through. He’s quite a thug at times, so for me it mirrors the whole yard and what we are about.
“It becomes a case of what you want out of life. Scu has been champion jockey and you need to know what you actually want, as it can’t get better than being top jockey eight times. We said that we just want respect, that’s the one thing that we crave.”