Mighty performance could keep Scottish National at home
The big Ayr prize has headed south of the border in each of the seven renewals since Merigo posted his second success in the space of three years for Scotland in 2012.
It was a significantly longer wait before then for the home contingent too, but Scottish trainers have collectively readied a team which can have high hopes on Sunday of resisting the big-gun travellers.
Russell’s Big River will accompany his stablemate, while Harriet Graham’s Aye Right is likely to start favourite – and Sandy Thomson’s duo of Dingo Dollar and The Ferry Master, Nick Alexander’s top-weight Lake View Lad, Sandy Forster’s Claud And Goldie and Iain Jardine’s Cool Mix and Dino Boy join the gathering of the clans in the 22-runner marathon.
Russell, who admits to concerns about forecast good ground for Big River, has a more obvious chance with Mighty Thunder – already winner of the Edinburgh National and second in the Midlands version this season.
“He’s a very straightforward horse, still only a novice chaser – but I’d like to think we’ve taught him well at home,” she said of the eight-year-old
“We gave him an extra season over hurdles, because his jumping wasn’t that brilliant, and I think that’s benefited him.
“He hasn’t run that often, but he’s certainly taking himself to the heights.”
Russell – who claimed the Aintree National in 2017 with One For Arthur – is hoping Mighty Thunder, who will be ridden by Tom Scudamore in place of the injured Blair Campbell, can continue to provide a glimpse of a brightening future.
She added: “He’s another exciting young horse for us, and I think that’s what we’re having to base our hopes and dreams on – these young horses coming through now and producing properly.
“I wouldn’t want it to be good to firm, because I think he’s a nice horse for the future. But he’s a little bit more flexible (than Big River), in terms he’ll go on good ground as well.”
Among the very credible raiding party is Paul Nicholls’ Soldier Of Love, Brian Ellison’s Eider Chase hero Sam’s Adventure and Notachance from Alan King’s yard.
Some Chaos is another notable opponent for the Russell yard.
The 10-year-old is trained by Michael Scudamore – son of Peter, who is Russell’s partner and assistant.
“He’s in great form,” said the Herefordshire handler.
“We tried him over hurdles the last couple of times, but he’s not the same horse doing that.
“Hopefully his last run will have blown away the cobwebs for Sunday.”
Graham, meanwhile, is hoping Aye Right can make light of his big weight, prove himself at the marathon trip and gain overdue reward for his admirable but winless season.
“He has been so consistent, and he would be a deserving winner,” said the Jedburgh trainer.
“It would be really special for the owners Geoff and Elspeth (Adam), who are the ones who invested him as a three-year-old and have been very loyal to me and loyal to (jockey) Callum (Bewley).
“They are proper Scottish owners, keeping those horses trained in Scotland – and that’s what we need people to be doing up here.
“We don’t want them sending them to Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson. We want good Scottish horses trained in Scotland – and it would be great, very deserving for the horse, and we’d be just totally made up.”
Graham is mindful of another tough task, but confident Aye Right is in fine form.
“We’re all ready to go and excited about it,” she added.
“He’s very well, and I think the ground will be right for him.
“It would have been lovely to be going off 10st 12lb, rather than 11st 11lb – that would be my only negative.
“He does like Ayr – he’s won there twice. Obviously there is a question mark about him staying, but we feel he will – he certainly finishes his races the way he starts them, he seems to me to warm up.
“He’s got that lovely galloping rhythm that makes you think he should stay. That’s the whole reason for stepping him up to nearly four miles.
“But that question will be answered on Sunday.”
Bewley returns, having had to miss Aye Right’s placed effort at the Cheltenham Festival last month.
“Callum knows him really well – it’s just twice he hasn’t ridden him (in 23 career starts),” said Graham.
There's lots that have every right to win the race - but unless we are there, we're not going to, so we're giving it a go
“Obviously that’s an advantage.
“The Cheltenham race became quite messy. It didn’t go to plan for us, and he was in among the bunch with people jumping into him – and I think that just shows how tough he was, because he still ran on at the end.
“He is a really tough horse – whereas lots of horses might have got upset about that and stopped.
“We’re hopeful, but we’re realistic as well. It’s a long way and unknown territory.
“There’s a lot of nice horses in the race off lower weights, and there’s an argument for the lot of them – those ones carrying two stones less.
“There’s lots that have every right to win the race – but unless we are there, we’re not going to, so we’re giving it a go.”
Sam’s Adventure is another obvious threat, following his dour victory at Newcastle – but his trainer admits softer ground would have been preferable.
“Good to soft will be fine,” said Ellison.
“He would have won one day on good to soft at Kelso (in a novice hurdle won by Mighty Thunder), but he ducked out at the last.
“Basically, the horse is so well in himself. So we said we’d go for the Scottish National.
“The Midlands National probably just came a bit too quick after Newcastle. But he’s in great form – I couldn’t be happier with him. It’s just the ground (worry) obviously.
“That is an issue. He hasn’t had many chances on that kind of ground, because we’ve always thought he wanted it soft, heavy – which he does. He loves it.
“His form going into the race is great.”
The well-fancied Dingo Dollar was also a Newcastle winner, on stable debut for Thomson last month.
The Berwickshire trainer said: “This was the plan before Newcastle.
“It was always the plan to have a run, and hope it would be good enough, and then he would run in the Scottish National.
I always knew what the plan was (when he arrived) - and fortunately so far, it's coming to fruition
“He was favourite two years ago, I think (when with Alan King), but they didn’t run because of the firm ground.
“It should be all right this time, though.
“Unless you’ve run in a National, there’s very few horses that have run over this trip. But you would have to say he looks like he’ll stay all right.
“He’s obviously run some nice races, and I always knew what the plan was (when he arrived) – and fortunately so far, it’s coming to fruition.”
Champion jockey Brian Hughes will ride Dingo Dollar, with Sean Quinlan on The Ferry Master.
Thomson said of the latter: “There’s probably more of a question mark about him staying.
“But I thought we’d go at this stage of his career – because if he obviously doesn’t stay, then we will know that’s not where he’ll be campaigned, and be at three miles (instead).”
The best videos delivered daily
Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox