The romance of jump racing was on full show here as the plucky, prolific but nevertheless unsung Nuts Well battled his way to victory in the Old Roan Chase for the tiny Northumberland stable of Ann Hamilton.
This was the biggest success in the long career of the 73-year-old Hamilton, who still schools horses over fences at her base in the village of Capheaton, about 20 miles north-west of Newcastle.
“It means the world to us,” Hamilton said, “because he’s been so good to us and we just thought he couldn’t do it, with all that weight on his back. We thought we didn’t have a chance, so to beat the top trainers is amazing.
“We thought he might struggle in this ground. He’s really taken us by surprise.”
That thought will have been shared by almost everyone who had a bet on the race, as Nuts Well was returned at odds of 18-1. Though he has improved since Danny McMenamin became his regular jockey, a series of wins at Wetherby, Musselburgh and Kelso cut little ice with punters when weighing up a major handicap like this, in which the opposition was trained by the likes of Paul Nicholls, Colin Tizzard and Jonjo O’Neill.
After a short chat with reporters, Hamilton insisted on rushing off to attend to her horse, leaving her husband, Ian, to fill in the blanks. The pair are sheep and cattle farmers, he explained, and she has enjoyed training five or six horses on the side since about 1980.
There have been some fallow spells, like the six consecutive seasons in the 1990s when their stable had not a single winner. But it was worth it for well-remembered days like the one in April 2003, when Divet Hill won the Fox Hunters over the Grand National fences, despite his jockey’s breeches splitting at the rear as they cleared The Chair. “It’s always been a lucky place for us, Aintree,” Ian reflected. “Absolutely brilliant.” But he was not tempted by the thought of trying Nuts Well over the famous green fences here, in a race like the Topham in the spring. “He’s not very big, you know. We wouldn’t put him over the big ‘uns.”
Finding the right target for Nuts Well might now be the biggest problem facing the Hamiltons’ training operation, as opportunities are scarce for highly rated animals and he will be just outside the top 20 in Britain after this. It is an unusual sort of problem for a stable whose staff amounts to “two great girls” who help out in their lunch breaks.
How will the couple celebrate this notable victory? “Go to bed early, I suppose. I’ve got cattle to feed when I get back, Ann’ll have six horses to see to. Then we might have a drink.”
Robbie Power, who was unseated from Vision Des Flos during the Old Roan, hopes to be back in action this week, despite initial fears that he might have suffered serious injury. “I’m fine,” he reported. “I’ve just got a bit of soft-tissue damage in my knee, but it feels all right. I’ve got plenty of movement in it, just plenty of bruising. Hopefully, it will be fine in a couple of days or so.”