he Grand National is on the agenda for that hugely talented enigma Yorkhill, who brought tears to the eyes of his owners by winning Saturday’s Rehearsal Chase at odds of 66-1. The chestnut has become the latest evidence of Sandy Thomson’s skill at reviving sulky old racers, with the rugged beauty of the Borders countryside having also played a part.
Ruby Walsh once declared that Yorkhill “has Gold Cup written all over him” but that was three and a half years ago, after the horse’s second success at the Cheltenham Festival. It would take an equine mind-reader to establish what has gone wrong since but from that day to this weekend, Yorkhill managed just a single win against a small field at Galway.
No wonder those close to him were moved by his battling success at Newcastle. “I was in tears,” Lee Westwood, one of his owners, told RacingTV on Sunday. “I don’t often get emotional but Yorkhill certainly brought a tear to my eye and I lost my voice. It’s only just coming back this morning. People love a comeback story and this is certainly that.”
Thomson, whose stable is a few miles north of Kelso, heard calls for the horse to be retired after a poor run at Aintree last month, the first since Yorkhill had left Willie Mullins’s all-conquering yard in Ireland. But he knew there could be better to come.
“There’s a lot of local people that’ll have had a little on, just because they wouldn’t let a horse of mine go off at that price,” he said on Sunday. A recent spin around Carlisle had raised hopes and the horse had appeared to enjoy himself on a day out around a neighbouring estate last week.
“There’s a river runs through the middle of it and they’ve planted a lot of trees. It’s just something completely different, going for a hack round there, a little canter here and there. He just loved it, he’d probably never seen anything like it in his life.”
Variety is to be the spice of Yorkhill’s life from now on and Thomson is especially keen to avoid anything that might resemble the hard work he inevitably went through while being prepared for Grade One prizes early in his career. The trainer will be “keeping him off the all-weather gallop unless it’s absolutely necessary,” for example.
“We were over at Punchestown last year and went into Willie Mullins’s yard and Gordon Elliott’s. I was fascinated to watch them but I’ve always said, when we go to the sales, we’re trying to find these horses that have maybe lost their way in the big yards because there are so many and it’s all become a bit of a routine and they’ve got absolutely fed up with life.”
If Yorkhill is allowed to think he is getting things his own way these days, so much the better. “I stuck one of the girls on and he loved it because he was able to do exactly what he wanted with her. He wasn’t going to take off with her and be dangerous, she was quite capable of riding him, but it was something different for him.”
Thomson was struck by a picture he saw online of Yorkhill winning at Cheltenham in 2017. “You can see the determination in his heart but there’s no joy in it. And then there’s a picture of him jumping the last yesterday and his ears are pricked and he’s loving life.
“That’s how his life has to be now. He has to love it to perform and if he’s not going to love it, he’s not going to go anywhere. I do feel, and I impress it on the staff, that we have to keep everything as relaxed as possible.”
Thomson plans a sit-down this week to discuss plans with the owners, Westwood and Dave Armstrong, but a Christmas engagement in Wetherby’s Rowland Meyrick Chase suggests itself. Beyond that, much will depend on whether the chestnut is able to sustain the enthusiasm he showed at Newcastle. But if all goes well, it is easy to see him as a Grand National contender next spring.
Monday’s horse racing tips
12.30 Castle Rushen 1.00 Fantastic Rock 1.35 Bryden Boy 2.10 Mayo Star 2.40 Epsom Des Mottes 3.10 You Name Him 3.40 Highstakesplayer
12.45 Andapa 1.15 Thomas Todd 1.50 Pasvolsky 2.20 Telson Barley 2.50 Grouseman (nap) 3.20 Goldencard
1.25 Shining Example 1.55 Vanitas 2.30 Sharla 3.00 Campeao 3.30 Noble Queen (nb) 4.05 Liberty Bay 4.35 Phoenix Star 5.05 Corrida De Toros
3.50 The Defiant 4.20 Comeatchoo 4.50 Muftakker 5.20 Madeeh 5.50 Harlow 6.20 Moonlight In Paris 6.50 Elmetto 7.20 Hedging 7.50 Shamarouski
“He might just jump the fences a bit big, that might be the concern,” Thomson reflects. “You see Tiger Roll, he skims through the top of them, not taking too much out of himself. But he’ll definitely get an entry. God willing, it would be brilliant if we get him there.”