During recent seasons, it has become tempting to view horses trained by Kim Bailey as driftwood, evocative of some distant, forgotten shore. His winners now, however, can perhaps be recognised as buds of renewal in a tree that once cast deep shade against the pitiless heat of his profession.
Bailey is the only contemporary trainer to have scaled all three jump racing pinnacles: Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and Grand National. In 1995, when he won both the Cheltenham races within three days, this tall, urbane figure seemed to bestride the sport. Within five years, he had somehow been banished to its periphery.
If there were one or two upheavals, personal or professional, then they were scarcely sufficient to explain his bewildering decline. Seeking a fresh start, he moved from Lambourn to Northamptonshire - and from frying pan to fire. His new gallop was washed away. His new Aintree hope, Betty's Boy, broke a leg in his final work before the race. Over his last two seasons there, Bailey scraped together just a dozen winners. Yet if racing is ruthless in letting people down, it is no less so in refusing to release them. Stubborn in his addiction and belief, last year Bailey sold up and leased farmland on a voluptuous sweep of the Cotswolds near the village of Andoversford, teasingly within reach of Cheltenham. He took just seven weeks to install stabling and a steep five-furlong gallop.
"The hardest thing was to admit that it had been a failure," he said yesterday, reflecting on six years in Northamptonshire. "But the place had become a noose round my neck. We had empty boxes, and it simply wasn't viable. It was hard ringing round the owners, who have been so supportive. But they could see the sense of the move. And now they can all see the difference in me, and in the horses."
Even on a morning like this, when the wind spat across the swollen Windrush, it was obvious that this place must be Eden on a summer evening. Having arrived only in September, Bailey will have to take that on trust - something that fits admirably, at 53, with his revived spirits. "This is for when we win the National," he said, opening a giant, empty barn, just along from the one already housing 36 boxes, and horses "good, bad and indifferent". The one who best condenses his trainer's fortunes is Longshanks, with a depressing final season in Northamptonshire and an ambitious future. Jarred up after his only run last winter, he won impressively at Newbury in November and is again being aimed at the National, having just missed the cut two seasons ago.
"Hopefully we'll get in this time, now that he is rated 139," Bailey said. "He'll go to Haydock on 17 February - just after the weights come out - so long as the ground isn't too heavy." Always a natural communicator, Bailey registers 1,000 hits a day on his website, many doubtless stimulated by the authentic tone of his diary. But he knows no better evangelism than winners. "We need some new pictures in here," he said, gesturing at the photos of Mr Frisk, Master Oats, Alderbrook. "There's never any point looking back. We haven't any star horses, so we need to win with what we have, and hopefully they'll start coming back. I'd love to get back up to 60. And of course the great thing with horses is that you never really know what's coming through."
After taking a while to bed down, Bailey has saddled four winners from his last nine runners - three of them in barely an hour at Huntingdon on Boxing Day. Admittedly, one was indebted to a late faller, and another to a disqualification, but this change of luck was surely overdue. "That was a real boost," he said. "Everyone seemed to notice, we got so many messages you would have thought we had won the National." Bailey has palpably gained perspective and inspiration from the recovery of J P McNamara after a terrible fall last year. "J P was told he would never walk again, but he was here the other day and did 15 steps without crutches," he said. "He was never going to accept it, and he's getting there through sheer willpower. His fellow jockeys have been fantastically supportive, and the public, too. But the whole thing makes you realise how fragile we all are."
And his dignity and humility now suggests this discovery to be more than merely physical. "We had some great years in Lam- bourn," he said. "Whether someone was telling us we had overplayed our luck, I don't know. We had that knockdown. But I feel a much better person for it. I never felt embittered. Frustrated, yes. But I have always felt lucky to be able to do something I love, and still get huge satisfaction from a winner, no matter how small. It's all about the owners, their faith, and the fulfilment they get. That's why you do your utmost. And I am certain this place is going to work for us."
Nap: Beldon Hill
NB: Norton Sapphire