If the spring double, that time-honoured but now ever so slightly old-fashioned concept, is an elusive target for punters, it is many times more so for the game's professionals. To find the winner of both the Lincoln Handicap and the Grand National is a 100-1 shot in itself, to train the winner of both is rarer still, and to find a live candidate for both in the same yard in the same year is almost unheard-of. So step forward with honour Blythe Knight, Character Building and John Quinn.
The two horses did so yesterday at Highfield Stables near Malton, the bright morning sunshine glinting on the chestnut coat and the grey. "Two fine animals," said Quinn proudly. "And I don't like running no-hopers in any race. I think they've both got real each-way chances, even allowing for the fact I may be a bit biased."
According to the market, Blythe Knight is the less fancied of the pair, available at 25-1 for Saturday's traditional mile cavalry charge at Doncaster. The flashy white-faced nine-year-old won the Lincoln three years ago, when it was held at Redcar and beat all bar Smokey Oakey 12 months ago on the race's return to Town Moor.
Quinn's admiration for tough, versatile Blythe Knight, winner of Group Threes on the Flat and a Grade Two over hurdles, is undisguised. "He's a proper horse," he said. "There are those ahead of him in the betting who couldn't lay up in a Group Three, let alone win one. I know nothing as old as him has ever won a Lincoln, but it's only the stats that are against him, not his age."
Blythe Knight went under by just over a length at Doncaster last year. "He was out on the far side then, in no-man's land, and had to go on too early," said Quinn. "I'd hope to be in among the pace this time. He's in great nick and he loves that straight mile. He's just a professional racehorse – he's a great eater, doesn't worry about anything and is comfortable in himself. The other horse is good, but this one is a phenomenon."
The "other horse" is a contemporary of Blythe Knight, but with half the mileage. Character Building galloped up the Grand National betting – he is fourth favourite at around 12-1 – with a polished display to take the Kim Muir Chase at Cheltenham two weeks ago.
He caught the eye of punters that day, and other eyes too. He is likely to carry new colours in the Grand National as his owners, bookmakers Luke McMahon and John Knight, juggle high-rolling offers. Those who have made bids are believed to include Trevor Hemmings and, tantalisingly, a prominent Flat owner.
"There is someone involved who is better known on the Flat and has not yet had a runner in the National," said Quinn. "And this horse has the right profile. He's low-mileage, progressive, is the right age and the last grey to win a National won the Kim Muir on the way."
One of the conditions of sale will be that Character Building remains where he is, in the 100-year-old Yorkshire yard that has turned out the heroes and heroines of six Classics and, since Quinn moved in two and a half years ago, a Royal Ascot winner as well as a Cheltenham one.
The 47-year-old Irishman's record identifies him as a genuine dual-purpose trainer, as adaptable as David Elsworth, who won a Lincoln with Mighty Fly in 1983 and a National with Rhyme 'N' Reason in 1988, or Denys Smith, who notched the double with Red Alligator (1968) and Foggy Bell (1969).
But he is loath to be categorised. "Being put in a box doesn't help," he said. "Any trainer can only train the horses he's got. There are many able guys out there who are thought of as 'only' handicap specialists. But they've never had Classic horses, so how does anyone know? I train what I've got to the best of my ability, and if it's all year round it's because I need to be in business all year round."
Quinn is doing that so effectively that Highfield's 73 boxes are all occupied. "They weren't this time last year," he said, "so, given the financial climate, it's a matter of satisfaction that we're full now. But then, I've never been happy sitting still. The plan is always to move forward. You don't get rich or lucky sitting on your backside."