While owner Max McNeill’s quest to land a first winner at the Cheltenham Festival goes on for another year, it will pale into insignificance if his Escaria Ten claims the Randox Grand National.
Despite sponsoring a race at Cheltenham and coming close on numerous occasions, McNeill’s famous red, blue and white silks have never manged to break the final frontier in the Cotswolds.
However, for McNeill, like so many involved in the sport, there was one race which piqued his interest and it does not take place in Gloucestershire, but much nearer to his beloved Blackburn.
A keen Rovers fan – he owns a horse named after their greatest ever player, Alan Shearer – McNeill admits winning the National would eclipse anything else in racing.
“It all started for me through my old man. My dad (Ted) was a professional golfer but he loved his racing. I used to spend hours outside the bookies in Blackburn with a can of coke and a bag of crisps while the old man put his bets on,” said McNeill.
“On Saturday afternoons if we weren’t watching Rovers, we’d be watching the racing on TV and the Grand National was the big event.
“My sister and two brothers would get involved, my dad would put the bets on and I remember names like Spanish Steps, Red Alligator, of course Red Rum, Crisp – they were household names.
“The National is like no other race, even Cheltenham, as it transcends the racing public. It is the most watched race in the world. You have all those Flat races worth millions but nothing catches the public’s imagination like the National.”
As something of a local, McNeill tends to target the meeting in any case, but talk among his friends and associates usually revolves around just one race.
“We’ve had some good runners at the meeting down the years, but all everyone wants to talk about is the National – and quite rightly. We’ve had Walkon run in it in 2014, but he was among the outsiders so to have a fancied runner is really exciting,” he said.
“I ran a company for 20-odd years. We never had a sweepstake for the Derby but we always had one for the National and it will be the same up and down the country.
“My daughter has really been bitten by the bug – I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing – and wants a career in racing, my son not so much, it’s all about cars for him. When they were younger, we’d all have a bet in the National and watch it is as a family picking our horses out. There really is nothing like it and the build up is great.
“The tension the hour before the race is unbearable, I’ll have to have a few pints of Guinness!”
Although McNeill will still seem a relative newcomer to the ownership ranks to some, he is closing in on 20 years’ involvement.
“I got involved in ownership in 2005, a horse called Jackella named after my kids, who was in training with Lawney Hill and we built up from there,” he said.
“We moved to Alan King then and Walkon (Grade One winner at Aintree) was the first good horse we had. Alan, for me, is the best dual-purpose trainer in the country and he specialised in buying horses off the Flat to make juvenile hurdlers.
“In Walkon, Mille Chief and Grumeti, we enjoyed plenty of success. Tritonic is one more recently with Alan who has done well for us but it is getting more difficult. We bought Pleasant Man off the Flat this year but he had a lung infection when he made his hurdling debut.
“While we still like the juveniles, we have changed tack slightly in recent years, building towards three-mile chasers and we’re trying to build a pyramid like a football club, with hopefully younger horses to step in and replace the older ones eventually. We bought nine unraced bumper horses last year, all with the aim of hopefully being three-mile chasers.
“It seems to be working. We’ve Senior Citizen who is favourite for the Topham and Threeunderthrufive who might be next year’s National horse.
“My inner circle, if that’s the term, is Iain Turner, my racing manager, who specialises in pedigrees and form – we came across each other nearly 20 years ago and kept in touch – and Adrian Heskin, who is also keen on the breeding, we all talk all the time. I also use various bloodstock agents and advisors.”
Heskin has been McNeill’s retained rider for nearly five years now and it is clear the pair have a strong bond.
“Adrian is a big part of the team, he rides the horses with their futures in mind but he’s also very honest. If a horse isn’t going to be very good, he’ll tell us. We have a horse who currently doesn’t look very good but Adrian is convinced he’ll be a decent chaser, so we will keep him but he’ll also tell us when they aren’t, which is just as important,” said McNeill.
Escaria Ten, trained by three-times Grand National winner Gordon Elliott, was beaten just a nose in his most recent race by Any Second Now and the pair are battling it out for Aintree favouritism.
“Adrian couldn’t actually ride Escaria Ten over fences until last year’s Festival because of Covid (regulations). He was a close third in the National Hunt Chase behind Galvin and Next Destination – a long way in front of Snow Leopardess, who was fourth, and she’s among the favourites for the National,” said McNeill.
“That was when we realised we had a proper horse – though Gordon had told us that anyway. The Irish National came too soon after Cheltenham but there was no damage done, Adrian looked after him.
“I then said to Gordon ‘am I smoking some bad stuff or should we be looking at the National for this horse’ and thankfully he was thinking the same way. Crucially he knows a bit more than me about training National winners, but I wanted to ask him directly.
“He did have a minor setback in the autumn which stopped him running in the Becher, but it was a brutal race that day in awful weather. He went on to run a nice race in the Thyestes and then was beaten in a photo for the Bobbyjo when he just hit the front too soon.
“Any Second Now beat him and he’s among the favourites with him. It would have been nice to win, but a few days later I was very happy.
“I find the most nerve-wracking races are the trials for some reason. Because if they run poorly in the trials you’ve no point in going for the big one, you’ve more to lose and you build yourself up.”
So has McNeill allowed himself to think about winning the National?
“He looks a live contender but you can’t let yourself think about winning the race – apart from when you’ve had a few to drink!” he joked.
“Realistically, it’s a 40-runner handicap that everybody wants to win. They go from the off to the first like a six-furlong sprint and every fence is an event – even when I’ve just had a bet, never mind have a runner, it’s nerve-wracking.
“You’ve got to let yourself get a little bit carried away in the build up because how often am I going to have a fancied runner in the National? It won’t happen much that’s for sure, so I’m going to enjoy it.
“Gordon actually rang me the other day and my heart missed a beat because I automatically thought he was ringing to say something was wrong, but it was something completely unrelated which made us laugh.
“I’m going to enjoy it because win, lose or draw, this is why we do it and if you don’t enjoy it, go and buy a sports car.”