Traveller puts Daly on road to Aintree

Protege of Grand National master guides the favourite for this year's race
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Mrs Daly would be pleased with how her sons have done. Arthur, her eldest, has forged a an intermittent business career on the pavements of the capital, while young Henry has also flourished in a somewhat more bucolic environment.

It was windy on the south Shropshire gallops above Downton Hall Stables yesterday. Not plain blowy, but palm tree-bendingly windy as cold air bounced around the high basin formed by the Clee Hills on one side and the Long Mynd on the other. Henry Daly, as his predecessor and Svengali Tim Forster would have, rather enjoyed these training conditions. Raw weather greeting raw-boned chasers snorting up the gallops.

Captain Forster is gone now, but, nearly a year after his death, his influence lingers. The horses at Downton are trained as if he were still there on the working grounds, and the talk has come around once again to a race he farmed.

Three Grand Nationals fell to the Captain and now a fourth may be attributed to his training techniques. Star Traveller is an 8-1 favourite to make Henry Daly's initial foray into the great race a successful one on Saturday week, and he looked no false idol yesterday as he parted the fierce air. "He just looks so good in his skin," Daly said. "I've no idea what the typical National type is and if you look in the office there are photographs of three Grand National winners trained by T Forster which all look very different. I don't think there is a mould, but he's a very accurate little jumper.

"He's very straightforward. There is nothing complicated about him and the only time he has ever run a bad race was in the Charisma [Gold Cup, at Kempton, in October]. I have no idea what happened that day. All I can think of was that he woke up with a headache. If all goes according to plan he should run well, but from there the National is the National."

There are great traditions to be followed here. Not only must Daly win at Aintree, but he must also issue idiosyncratic words beforehand. "Keep remounting," Forster instructed Charlie Fenwick before Ben Nevis's victory in 1980. Five years later, he whispered to Anne, Duchess Of Westminster, before Last Suspect's success. "See you back at the grandstand," he said, "after we have caught him."

Daly already has in mind what he will tell Richard Johnson, Star Traveller's jockey. "Good luck," he will say, "and shut your eyes." It is advice the rider seems to have taken all too literally on his Aintree efforts thus far. Johnson has yet to make it on to the second circuit at Liverpool in three rides. In 1998 he gave viewers a brief and frightening insight into the perils of the National when he wore a helmet camera for the ride on Banjo. The partnership hurtled to earth at the first.

Star Traveller should at least extend his journey. The nine-year-old has never fallen. "He seems the right sort of horse for the race," Johnson convinced us, and himself, yesterday. "He's very genuine and not too flamboyant. He's consistent and you need something you can depend on round there."

Daly's Aintree pedigree, at 33, goes back somewhat further and he too has witnessed fallers. "My first recollection of the National was when Ben Nevis won it," he said. "I was 13 and I went with my father, who was a great mate of T Forster and we stood on top of the owners' and trainers' stand. He was 6ft 5in, a big man, and when the horse won I can still picture him coming off the stands to get down to the unsaddling enclosure. He left me and my brother for dead and people just parted as he went crashing down."

Daly was assistant to Forster from 1991 until July 1998, when he inherited not only the yard and horses, but also his old master's devout pessimism. It looked well founded when his first runner died at the races. However, there were 35 wins last season, and currently 33 for 10th place in the trainers' championship, including the Welsh National with Edmond and a debut Cheltenham Festival winner with Relaxation.

Edmond is as low as 16-1 for Liverpool but will not run. "He's looking unlikely because of the ground," Daly said. "I will discuss it with Lady Knutsford [the owner]." The trainer has also been bequeathed Lord Leverhulme and Lady Pilkington, Anne, Duchess of Westminster and Earl Cadogan. This is perhaps the only yard in Britain where the owners could form an upper chamber of Parliament.

But then this is the quintessential English operation. Downton Hall, smuggled high above Ludlow, is as easy to locate as Robin Hood's lair, even though it is a sprawling domain with six miles of its own drives. In one quiet corner there is a graveyard, complete with headstones, honouring the hounds of the Ludlow Hunt.

The only concession to modernity is in the estate's primary objective: preparing winners. Three times the athletes are sent up a woodchip gallop each working day. We can call it interval training. Forster was disturbed when he found the horses seemed to enjoy, indeed thrive, on such monotony. For decades he used to send work riders out with a map and compass to vary each horse's routine. Then the traditions he held dear crumbled in front of him.

"His one complaint used to be that this is a staggeringly boring way of training racehorses," Daly said. "You spend hours waiting for them to go to the bottom of the all-weather and back up again. He'd sit in his truck and say: 'I've no idea how that Martin Pipe does it'."

But then Martin Pipe had no idea how Tim Forster trained so many Grand National winners. It is a scholarly secret Henry Daly intends to keep to himself before his first Aintree runner steps out on to the Merseyside turf a week on Saturday.