Nature nurtures new National love for Scudamore and partner Russell
Former champion jockey and top Scottish trainer distil spirit of Aintree with leading fancy for Saturday
Wednesday 06 April 2011
Away to the west, grey veins of snow cling to the highest of the Ochil Hills. Beyond the loch, to the south, slumbers the recumbent green giant of Benarty; and here, above the gallop, rises the steep shoulder of the Lomonds. You could hardly come here every morning and fail to learn a broader perspective – even if the horses that come bounding up the gallop have, in years past, hypnotised your emotional perceptions.
Peter Scudamore stands up here with Lucinda Russell, watching Silver By Nature prepare for the world's most famous chase. It is a fraught enterprise. The horse's owners are irretrievably divided about the John Smith's Grand National. To Geoff Brown, Aintree is the grey's manifest destiny. To his wife, Joyce, Saturday is only a matter of dread.
For Russell, meanwhile, there are additional burdens. A nation hopes that she can become the first to unfurl the saltire over Aintree since Rubstic in 1979. The National would also seal the status of Arlary House as Scotland's leading stable. Beneath the girlish curls, her eyes are steady, watchful, acute. She has always been candidly, helplessly competitive. Only she is no longer helpless.
For four or five years now she has shared business and pleasure alike with Scudamore, whose own fixation with results once won him eight riding championships. In those days, as he now concedes, his obsession could be corrosive. It eventually told on his marriage. Then he met Russell, and they have since held the mirror to each other, their broken edges refracted into a single, seamless image.
Scudamore, who spent years breaking records with Martin Pipe, taught Russell the delegation essential to the expansion of her stable. In turn, Scudamore has himself achieved a detachment that he almost feared in his riding days. "You get older, and see there is more to life," he says. "Which I didn't understand for a long time. More to life than this horse winning the Grand National. John Francome had a much better attitude than me. You'd be worrying about a novice chase, and he'd say: 'Look, they're shooting people in Lebanon'. I was an angry young man – well, no, not angry. Determined. It was my way of being somebody. Since giving up, you can perhaps be yourself more."
There could be few better measures of this adjustment than the National itself. Scudamore could never crack it as a jockey, in 13 consecutive attempts from 1981. Even as a child, the famous fences seemed to stand brooding in his path, his father having ridden Oxo in 1959. "Wherever I walked as a kid, I'm with a man who had won the Grand National," he said. "And then riding, the championship meant everything to me – but people would still identify you with the fact you hadn't won the race."
Until last year, of course, it was much the same for Tony McCoy. But Scudamore can no longer take comfort in that fellowship. If he let himself, in fact, he could resume gnawing at the suspicion he retired too soon. It was 1993, and he was 34. "Then Richard Dunwoody comes and wins it again, and then McCoy does it, and you still think: 'Gosh I wish I'd gone on, I'm as good as them, I wish I'd...'" He trails off briefly, brightens. "But I didn't really feel that last year. I was genuinely pleased for him."
Anyhow, it turned out his National saga had barely begun. Scudamore teamed up with Nigel Twiston-Davies, as assistant and business partner, and they won it twice. First there was Earth Summit, in 1998. Scudamore could barely believe what "two scruffy kids from Herefordshire" had pulled off. Then, four years later, Bindaree persuaded Twiston-Davies not to quit training, after all. Instead he would carry on without Scudamore. "At the time, it was sad – bitter, if you like," Scudamore says. "But from it great things happened."
Media work aside, Scudamore found fulfilment in the blossoming talents of his sons. Michael is training in Herefordshire, while Tom is stable jockey to Pipe's son, David. "They both conduct themselves well," Scudamore says. "It's probably the single most important thing, how you treat other human beings. And racing doesn't always get that right."
The sport has a fine template, in that respect, here at Arlary. There is an unmistakable camaraderie about the yard, where some staff have been here ever since Russell, now 44, was honing her skills with eventers. This was Russell's adolescent home, and her parents still live in the fine old house, serving whisky by the library fire, and watching peacocks on the lawns. There is supposed to be a secret passage here, to the castle on an island in the loch, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned. "We thought we found it once, as kids," Russell says. "Took up some floorboards. But I suspect it was just an old wine cellar."
Around that time she asked her father, a whisky broker, to convert a byre for her pony. Thereafter, the project developed piecemeal. Eventually, a thoroughbred found its way here. Russell galloped it round some stubble, and won a point-to-point. Now there are 70 stabled here, and the yard has had 39 wins in a season disrupted by midwinter weather.
If staff and horses seem mutually engaged by their environment, it is no coincidence. Russell, a psychology graduate, is interested in what makes them all tick – on two legs or four. "A year of the course was in Canada," she remembers. "That was much more applied: alcoholism, kids that hit themselves, depression. Back here at St Andrews it was more about cutting up rats' brains, why people get hungry or thirsty. I do apply a lot of it in everyday life. It makes you think about behaviour. You can't make a horse do something. You've got to make it want to do something. And it's the same when it comes to motivating staff."
Russell's patrons include Craig Levein, the Scotland football manager, and they enjoy comparing their respective charges. "You can tell the horses that are going to go to the top," she says. "As well as physically, they stand out with their star quality. And I'm sure Craig would say the same about some footballers. We talk about that all the time – how you motivate players who don't necessarily want to be team players."
Brown, incidentally, compounds the football theme as long-serving chairman of St Johnstone. But then that's what the National does: it transcends the parish boundaries of sport, and society. As Russell says: "I always think people can remember times in their lives through the Grand National." It would be fitting, then, for the winner to be trained by a psychologist; and ridden by this cerebral Ulsterman, Peter Buchanan, who has an accountancy degree.
Above all, this breadth of perspective is embraced by Scudamore himself. There is none of the toxic intensity of old. He is stimulated by his work, certainly, and still has that earnest demeanour – but nowadays he has a delightfully open quality, too, curious about what others think or do or dream. He marvels at Russell's unflagging appetite for detail. After working the horses, he would gladly play golf all afternoon. His relocation is not simply geographical.
"Things can set me off, especially when you're tired, or you've had a drink," he says. "I did give up early. But I knew you can't be a jockey for ever, and I've been very lucky in what I've been able to do since. Look, being a jockey is fantastic. But it's quite limiting. And all sportsmen are spoilt, same as actors. So I think it's good to step back, and work, and appreciate things. I do find it quite hard when people say I did it through sheer force of will. I was quite good. OK, I didn't win this race as a jockey. But Nigel and I had two winners together, and who knows? It could be a lucky race for me, in another form – in the shadows, standing behind a lover and a partner."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Standout (4.20 Nottingham) A maiden after eight starts, but still progressing and runs off same mark as when forcing a photo on reappearance.
Bestwecan (5.10 Beverley) Resolute galloper looks to have been given a reasonable mark for his handicap debut.
One to watch
Lexi's Hero (Kevin Ryan) Failed only narrowly to contribute to his yard's good start at Pontefract yesterday, but impressed by the way he went clear before being reeled in by one sheltered from the early pace.
Where the money's going
Don't Push It is 12-1 from 14-1 with Ladbrokes to repeat last year's success in the John Smith's Grand National on Saturday.
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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