Lucinda Russell is optimistic that Ahoy Senor can build on his impressive victory in the Grade Two Paddy Power Cotswold Chase on Cheltenham Trials Day in January, as he bids to become the first Scottish-trained winner of the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup (Friday 17th March).
The eight year old was a Grade One winner as a novice at the Randox Grand National Festival at Aintree last season and he took a few notable scalps when showing stamina aplenty with his length and a half success in January – with those in-behind him including the likes of the Betfair Chase hero Protektorat and last year’s Randox Grand National winner Noble Yeats.
Russell has sportingly campaigned Ahoy Senor so far this season, heading to each of Wetherby, Aintree and Kempton Park before striking at Cheltenham and she feels that her charge is really beginning to come into his own as he prepares to be his yard’s first runner in Jump racing’s Blue Riband.
Speaking to the Jockey Club at her Arlary House Stables base in Perth and Kinross, she said: “His season started pretty poorly. We always knew that we wanted to aim for the Gold Cup but he was overenthusiastic at Wetherby (in the Charlie Hall Chase) and just didn’t concentrate. He did finish but it wasn’t the best run in the world, so since then we’ve just been building him up.
“He then ran in the Many Clouds at Aintree and after that I thought he actually produced a good run in the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day (when fifth). Everyone sort of ribbed him and didn’t even mention him but Derek (Fox) managed to hold him up and he actually jumped straight at a place that isn’t really his track.
“He’s always been a spring horse and I wasn’t sure about running him in the Cotswold Chase but the half-owners said that they wanted him to have more practice around Cheltenham. We know he runs well around Aintree and a flat track suits him, but they were right – he ran a fabulous race and I thought his jumping was much better.
“I think he’s just growing up now and every race that he has helps him. We’re not protecting him and waiting for the right race – running him more often has proven to be quite a good thing. He’s always suited Aintree and he’s always run a race within a month of the Grand National Festival, so hopefully the Cotswold Chase will put him right for the Gold Cup.
“There’s still a little bit more improvement needed with his jumping but his confidence is much higher now, which is good. I just loved the way he came round that home bend (in the Cotswold Chase) after dropping back a touch, like he did in the Brown Advisory last year. He just shoots up that home bend before powering up the hill and if he can do that again next week that would be fine!”
Ahoy Senor is a general price of 14-1 for next Friday’sBoodles Cheltenham Gold Cup and while his trainer is under no illusions about how fierce the competition will be on the day, she feels it will all come down to small margins.
She continued: “You’ve got Galopin Des Champs who’s a super horse and if he stays he’s outstanding. He looks much more relaxed and looked really good at Leopardstown. Then you have Bravemansgame who’s an outstanding horse and a Grand National winner in Noble Yeats and both of those of have beaten us and we’ve beaten them as well. That’s what it’s like in the Gold Cup, it’s all about the right horse on the day.
“He’s always had the ability but it’s just been a case of trying to contain it and educate it. I’ll let everyone else say that he needs to make sure he keeps the jumping errors down but if he can do that (he goes there with a chance). The same horses could come back next year and you could get a different winner, that’s what the Gold Cup is all about.”
When asked what victory in the Gold Cup would mean to her, she added: “It’s funny, people ask what things mean to you and there’s so many things on so many different levels. If Corach Rambler wins it’s a personal thing because Scu (Peter Scudamore, partner) does so much with him, whereas if Ahoy Senor wins it’s about everything that we believe in at the yard.
“It’s about everybody working here behind the scenes and the intensity that we have and that is what’s being showcased (at the racecourse). Ahoy Senor is a fabulous horse but he has got his little bits that are good and bad – like his jumping and stuff – and Derek has had to see that through. He’s quite a thug at times, so for me it mirrors the whole yard and what we are about.”
Ahoy Senor would be a poignant winner of the Gold Cup as he was part-owned by Russell’s late father Peter Russell, who sadly passed away age 95 in the week leading up to the horse’s victory at Cheltenham in January. And she explained that Ahoy Senor, who is known as Hank around the yard, played a key part in keeping her father’s spirits up.
She said: “My dad was very enthusiastic about anything I did and I’m lucky that he lived here as I’d see him all the time, so he was very much a part of things and a part of the business.
“I told this story at his funeral, but if we bought horses they would always run in his colours and then if they were good we would sell them. He would always say ‘didn’t I used to own that one’ and when Bruce and Carron (Wymer) bought Ahoy Senor they asked my father to keep half of it.
“The reason why they’re into racing is through Carron’s father and when he died, she got into racing – so it was a lovely gesture. I don’t think dad appreciated just how good he was to start with and then he kept winning and when he won at Aintree as a novice hurdler I remember he was just in tears and so excited.
“I then had a year where Hank (Ahoy Senor’s nickname) was getting better and better as a novice and dad’s health was unfortunately failing. It was good to have a horse like that though as he offered my dad something to keep following.
“Dad didn’t really go out of the house very much, he didn’t go racing or anything but he’d come to the yard and things, and it gave him something to look at and focus on.
“He did ask the week before he died about the horse and whether he’s running at Cheltenham – so he didn’t lose it at all. I think racing has to remember this; we’re probably not going to get an income from these people but it’s lovely that the sport provides such an interest for people that don’t have anything else to look forward to.”
Russell and Scudamore have another key runner at the Festival in the form of Corach Rambler, who will bid for back-to-back victories in Tuesday’s Ultima Handicap Chase over three miles.
The nine year old hasn’t been seen on the track since finishing a fine fourth in the Coral Gold Cup at Newbury in November, but Russell explained that his absence was a ploy to keep a handle on his weight for next month’s Randox Grand National – for which he is the current 12-1 second favourite.
Corach Rambler is the apple of Peter Scudamore’s eye and the eight-time champion jockey feels that he has all the components to enjoy a big spring campaign.
Scudamore, who rode 13 Festival winners, said: “You never know about the fences (at Aintree) until they do it, but my undoubted belief is that he’s got all the talent and his style of racing would suit him in an ‘Arthur’ (One For Arthur, who won the race for Russell in 2017) type of National.
“There’s part of me saying that we were so lucky to win it once that could we ever deserve it again and I take nothing for granted. I have utmost belief that he can do it, but whether he will be able to is another thing.
“I look at Arthur’s National and you’d think he’d have to have a chance. We went to Liverpool though for the weights announcement last month and when you start to look at the list you realise just how tough a race it is. With Ahoy going to Cheltenham and Corach going to Aintree I’m under no illusion of the task ahead but I just believe they can be competitive.
“I am a southerner and we used to look at the Scots and think ‘oh look at the dear little Scottish people coming down’ but now I feel we have commanded a respect, which is what I wanted to do.
“I don’t want to go down with social runners and I think that Scottish racing has really picked up in the last few years and it can only be good for the industry.
“I want to move it on from the fact that we train in Scotland as we train in an area of Britain which happens to be Scotland – we’re not just little people. I just want to prove that we can train horses consistently to a high standard and we have done that but tomorrow is what I worry about, not yesterday.
“I think to myself ‘why do I love that horse at 64 years of age’ and it’s because the horse instils it into you. He’s a funny horse, if you watch him up the gallops he’ll do his work and then he turns around and wants to go home!
“I enjoy all of the attributes that Corach has, and I’d love to see that in a human being – he’s smart, he’s funny and he takes on cyclists on the road!”
Corach Rambler provided the yard with their second Cheltenham Festival victory, 10 years after Brindisi Breeze was victorious in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. And having since admitted that she rather took that victory for granted at the time, Russell revealed that she was keen to celebrate that success 12 months ago.
She said: “What was really nice about that day and it goes back to our family feel in the yard, is that the owners of One For Arthur (Belinda McClung and Deborah Thomson, the Two Golf Widows) were in the box for the four days and it was as if they’d won.
“They were so proud and so pleased for Corach’s owners and it was just brilliant, they’re a syndicate of seven people and some of them had never had a horse before. They’re so together and it’s lovely and it meant a lot.
“It was nice to be able to celebrate it as I wasn’t wide-eyed and stunned by it all (like with Brindisi Breeze, her first Cheltenham Festival winner in 2012) – we could appreciate it and enjoy it.
“It becomes a case of what you want out of life. Scu has been champion jockey and it becomes a case of knowing what you actually want from life, as it can’t get better than being top jockey eight times. We said that we just want respect, that’s the one thing that we crave.”
Corach Rambler & Peter Scudamore
Russell has five other entries for the Festival at the time of writing, though she confirmed that of those five onlyDouglas Talking was likely to take his chance – in Wednesday’s Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase.
She commented: “He needed to win at Sandown on Tuesday, but if he gets into the race on the back of that he’ll go. Credit must go to the owners as they were very proactive. We ran him (at Ayr in October) and he ran poorly, so we said we’d either give him a wind operation now or the end of the year and they said to do it.
“We did it there and then meaning we missed most of the season with him but actually he’s come back fresh and won two races in really good style.”