In one of the quietest stretches of Gloucestershire countryside, Tom George is preparing two contenders for the Grand National on Saturday in the hope of providing a spectacular finish to the best season of his training career. The 49-year-old fields both Saint Are, who was runner-up to Many Clouds a couple of years ago, and the improving youngster Double Shuffle and is not at all inclined to pick between them, to the extent of letting his principal jockey, Adrian Heskin, have a free choice of either one.
Heskin has put his name next to Double Shuffle but that may have something to do with the horse’s relative youth, meaning he will be lining up for big races for years to come, October’s Charlie Hall already being a tentative target; one does not want another rider getting familiar with a beast such as that. Davy Russell was quickly snapped up to ride Saint Are. Much may be said for the chances of both and George is just happy to have them on his side.
A visitor on the Sunday before last month’s Cheltenham Festival would have encountered a lot of tension here, and at many another racing stable, as a result of that race meeting’s ever-growing importance. The National imposes much less pressure and any prizes picked up will be a bonus. “You don’t go with expectations. You just go there hoping they’ll all run well and what’s going to be will be,” George says.
His season has been a fine one, whatever happens now. His tally of 63 winners is already 13 ahead of his previous best in 24 years with a licence. His strike rate of 21% and prize money of £835,000 are also personal bests. Of the jumps trainers currently in the top 10 for money won this season, only Willie Mullins has got there with fewer runners than George.
What is it that has gone so right for him? “I think the only way to describe it is as a wheel with a lot of cogs in it and all the cogs are working well, from my right-hand man to my jockey, to the feed merchant, physio, blacksmith, secretary, I’m probably working well because all of them are working well, I can concentrate on everything. The guy who’s buying the horses in Ireland ...
“ I think every single angle we’ve got has picked up, that’s what I’d say. But the gallops haven’t changed and the place hasn’t changed. The horses are all doing the same work.”
Supportive owners are also key. The men who make up ‘Crossed Fingers’ approached George five years ago. They were offering a couple of slow, old horses and had been turned away by other trainers. George said he would do what he could, got Desperate Dex to win his next two races at the age of 12, improved his rating by two stone and was promptly sent four more to carry the same colours. As a result, classy types such as God’s Own, Bun Doran and Big Fella Thanks are now in the yard.
Perhaps the major query about the chance of their Double Shuffle is his age. No horse as young as seven has won the National since 1940. But George thinks the changing nature of the race means that statistic is beatable.
“In years gone by you’d have said he’s too young but now … I was looking at pictures of Red Rum and that lot. It’s not the same race as it was then. It’s just not, it’s a different type of race now.
“The size of the horses 30 years ago, they were all absolutely enormous and you wouldn’t entertain running three-quarters of the horses that are running this year. So I don’t think you can knock the fact he’s that age. I don’t think that’s detrimental to him.”
Ground is key to Saint Are, whose chance dribbled away last year with the heavy rain that followed watering of the course in the final 48 hours. George is pleased by the dry forecast and, in view of the ground currently being described as soft, does not expect or wish to hear of any watering going on.
“Saint Are is every bit the same as when he was second. People might think he’s lost his way but he hasn’t. His last run, at Doncaster, was every bit as good as his last run before the National when he was second.
“It’s his time of year. He loves this time of year and you can see it in his coat, even now. Loves the track, loves the weather. So whatever’s happened up to now, now’s when you’re going to see the best of him.”
Monday’s tips, by Chris Cook
Ludlow 2.00 Tarrona 2.30 According To Harry 3.00 Shantou Rock (nap) 3.30 Jayo Time 4.00 Hestina 4.30 Zeehan 5.00 Creevytennant 5.30 Amron Kali
Kelso 2.10 Christmas In USA 2.40 Finaghy Ayr 3.10 Bescot Springs 3.40 Chidswell 4.10 Grace Tara 4.40 Monbeg Aquadude
Huntingdon 2.20 Just Milly 2.50 Spiritual Man 3.20 Bagging Turf 3.50 Pillard 4.20 Peal Of Bells (nb) 4.50 Troufion 5.20 Cockney Wren