Even Old himself was slightly startled. 'I'm a leading trainer,' he said yesterday, 'I didn't know.' Yet his nine entries, which include Collier Bay (Triumph Hurdle), Simpson (Stayers' Hurdle), Mole Board (Champion Hurdle) and three good prospects in the bumper, would be the envy of several better-known handlers. As Old admitted, 'I suppose it's not bad for a hick trainer on top of a hill.'
Skilful and patient would be fairer adjectives. Old has been on top of his hill, at Barbury Castle in Wiltshire, for three years, having been driven from his previous yard by a persistent virus. Even then, misfortune was on his tail. Al Mutahm, the best horse in Old's yard, was killed in a race at Cheltenham. 'We've had more snakes than ladders,' he said, 'but the rest of my life has been a rehearsal for this. I've been kicked around, but it makes a better chap of you. I'd have been insufferable if I'd been successful before.'
Collier Bay and Simpson are the horses most likely to reward his perseverance next week. To win the Triumph, Collier Bay will have to overcome Mysilv, who is one of the strongest ante-post favourites for the Festival, despite the contest's reputation for unpredictability.
Mysilv has plenty of winning form to her name. Too much, possibly. 'She's put up spectacular displays every time she's run, but she's been on the go a long time,' Old said. 'We gave ours a good holiday before starting work on him and he's just coming to the boil.'
Collier Bay, who won by 20 lengths at Lingfield on Friday, did not even see a hurdle in public until 18 February, when his initial reaction was not encouraging. 'He jumped so well at home that it never occurred to us that he might not jump well on his debut,' Old said. 'I think perhaps he's a bit thick and hadn't expected to see a hurdle on the racecourse, so he got frightened at the first couple and got behind. But after that he came home very well, and he's a big horse so we knew he'd improve.'
Simpson, too, has contributed to Old's frustrations over the years, but will go to the Stayers' Hurdle, half an hour after the Triumph on the Festival's final day, in unusually good health. 'He's had a chronic back problem,' Old said, 'but we've done a tremendous amount of work on it and hopefully we've got it right.
'He's so game. He was fourth at Newbury after running all over the place, beaten 15 lengths when he'd given them about 55, but he kept running on and when we got him home we found he had a hairline fracture of a pedal bone. But Haydock last month (when the gelding beat Avro Anson with ease) was the real Simpson. He's got a terrific chance.'
So patience may have its reward, and for showing humour and stoicism in the face of a number of enemies, few would deserve it more. 'They tell me I'm just an entertainer, but I want to be taken seriously,' Old said. 'I'm a racehorse trainer.' A leading one, too.
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