Racing / Grand National: Silk's story heightens the romance: Handsome and courageous, a 'natural' from the West Country turns from stone to Valentine's. Ken Jones reports

BY THE time Reg Wilkins first got a look at him, Double Silk had grown handsomely to more than 17 hands, with a gleam in his eyes, fairly crackling with power. Backward, in fact only just broken, but a natural jumper with good lineage. 'I was looking for another horse and felt that we might win a few point- to-points with him,' Wilkins said. 'Things just developed from there.'

Some progress. Five years on Double Silk is second favourite for the Grand National, an admired hunter chaser, fearless from being set at stone walls and with a string of impressive victories to raise exciting possibilities among the people of the Chew Valley in Somerset where Wilkins, a retired dairy farmer, trains.

The romance of National Hunt racing, especially its most famous steeplechase, is embodied in this small, wiry horseman who is still hunting in his 68th year and intends carrying on until the challenge begins to worry him.

When a man gets to that age he does not set aside much time for dreaming, but with Double Silk's maturity a previously unimaginable notion came to Wilkins. 'If you'd asked me two years ago if I'd end up in the National I would have told you not to be silly. It was after he won the Foxhunter at Aintree last year that we began to go with the idea. So here we are.'

There was more than a week to the great race and Wilkins was sitting in the kitchen of the neat farmhouse that was home to his father and grandfather before him. 'I was 62 when I got the horse,' he reflected. 'I'd just retired and had more time. Sold the other horses and decided to have a bit of fun with this one. After he ran at Wolverhampton, as we were going to the lorry a lady wanted to buy him and she rang to repeat the offer, but I didn't want to sell.'

It was in the next race, at Ascot, that Double Silk became a serious contender. Ridden as always by the amateur jockey, Ron Treloggen, he won in a photo-finish despite the handicap of losing a shoe. 'Jumping left-handed, he had to fight for it, and Ron felt that race did him more good than anything,' Wilkins said.

If Wilkins goes along with the theory of 90 per cent horse and 10 per cent jockey, his faith in Treloggen is absolute, believing that what he lacks in style is more than compensated for by crucial communication. 'Unless Ron was injured I wouldn't want any other jockey,' he added. 'Horses respond to Ron, they really do. He might not be the prettiest of riders but across country he's a very good horseman. He hunted this horse for me when we first started off. We jump stone walls around here you know and the horse took to jumping them like a cat, never touched one in his life. Never fallen.'

Along with Double Silk's comfortable repeat victory in the Foxhunter at the Cheltenham Festival last month, those credentials persuade Wilkins to think that he is going to Aintree with a considerable chance.

'Some people think that he jumps too big and he does stand back a hell of a long way. In fact sometimes you think he could put down again and still jump. But he's clever. He can put in a big one or a short one, whichever stride he's on, naturally, on his own.'

It was a nippy day of sunshine and clouds, and sudden squalling showers that rode in off the Mendip hills, and the gelding was tucked away in a barn after a morning's strenuous effort. 'A frightfully lazy horse,' chuckled Wilkins, 'never does more than he has to, very laid back. Just the same in his racing. Never really been got at.'

At Cheltenham, in a Foxhunter field thinned out by his intimidating presence, going off at odds on, Double Silk covered the three and a quarter miles only 3.9 seconds slower than his National rival The Fellow returned when winning the Gold Cup. 'The Fellow is a class horse,' Wilkins 'but he's still got to jump all the fences. We've got 10st 4lb when we thought we might get 11st, and he's got 11st 4lb.'

In the Chew Valley they have no doubt that Double Silk is a class horse too. More than 200 will be making the trip to Aintree and a bookmaker in Wells has taken around pounds 26,000 in small bets.

Probably, because his resourceful wife, Eva, has an antipathy towards gambling - 'it's the one thing that puts me off about all this,' she said - Wilkins is cagey about his own investment.

At Cheltenham last year he got on at 10-l, betting on Double Silk for the first time almost as an afterthought and more heavily than he intended. 'By mistake I handed the bookie 50 quid instead of 20,' he said. 'When I went to collect he wanted to know who'd tipped the horse. 'The owner'. I said. 'Me'.'

(Photograph omitted)