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Ryalux: a Scottish National star still going strong at the age of 28

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These days jump racing is largely dominated by a small group of big yards.

Opportunities for the smaller stable to make an imprint at the top table are about as scarce as the sumatran rhino but, joyfully, sometimes it does happen and the game is much more appealing because of it.

Back in 2003 Martin Pipe and Sir Anthony McCoy ruled jump racing. Pipe was well on his way to winning his eighth trainer’s title in a row, while the previous August, McCoy had become the winningmost jump jockey of all time. Add leading owner David Johnson into the mix and it’s easy to understand why Stormez – who represented all three – was well fancied to win that year’s Scottish National.

In against him, among others, was Ryalux. A horse saddled by Andy Crook who was in his training infancy and who had a string of less than ten horses. Of those, Ryalux was much the best.

“We didn’t have anything in the yard that could go with Ryalux – even if he was on an off day,” says Crook. “My next best horse at the time was called Pornic who was a 94-rated hurdler in the year we went to Ayr.”

Ryalux had his first 14 starts for Middleham trainer Micky Hammond and Crook happened to be head lad at the yard, but then when Hammond took a break from training opportunity knocked.

Crook says: “I took over Micky’s yard when he had a year off, and that included Ryalux, who I did quite well with, and we won a valuable chase with him at Perth in April 2002.

“But then Micky came back again, and it was at that point I decided to set up on my own.

“I found a nice stable nearby, Ashgill, and fortunately for me, the owner, William Lomas, decided to keep Ryalux with me rather than going back to Micky’s.

“That gave me the opportunity to carry on his training career and plot a path towards Ayr.

“We needed to get his handicap mark up to get in at Ayr, so we chose some decent races to run him in and he was trying his heart out every time.”

The 2002-03 season started at Kempton in October with a third to Zafarabad in the hands of Norman Williamson before winning at Ayr for Andrew Thornton.

By the time of his third start at Kelso that December, Richard Johnson took over in the plate and, while together the pair finished a close second behind Hugo De Grez, Crook came to an important decision after the race.

“He’d had quite a few different jockeys – Wilson Renwick, Tony Dobbin, Norman Williamson, Andrew Thornton, Richard Johnson,” he adds. But I decided that if we were to go for the Scottish National I wanted continuity and someone who could commit to him in the lead up to the race, and on the day.

“Richie McGrath was based locally, so I approached him and he was happy to take on the job. He told me he could commit and that was that.”

Ryalux (right): jumps the last almost upsides Stormez in the Scottish National in 2003

McGrath’s first taste of action on board Ryalux came in a big race – the Great Yorkshire Chase at Doncaster, or the Sky Bet Chase as it is now known. In the same race was a Pipe-trained horse called Barryscourt Lad and it was an important learning experience for all concerned.

“We just got beaten by the Pipe horse,” says Crook. “We came from quite a long way back to hit the front at the last, but Rodi Greene on Barryscourt Lad got a great burst out of his horse and we got done on the line by a head.

“We recognised then that Ryalux had a tendency to idle in front and it didn’t help him to be in front after the last.

“If you look back at his career record, although he was very consistent, he did finish in the places a lot.

“That was partly down to being beaten by superior horses on the day, and I never thought about resorting to headgear. He was so genuine, but coming late on him was maybe better than being in front too soon.”

The next stop for Ryalux, and his final stop before Ayr, came again at Kempton in what was then known as the Racing Post Chase – when it was a much more informative and relevant contest than maybe it is now.

The mare, La Landiere, who carried all before her that season including when winning at the Cheltenham Festival, won the race, beating Gunther McBride, but putting in some good late work was the plucky northern-based horse from a tiny yard, a run which persuaded McGrath that the Ayr dream could become a reality: “He got a little bit outpaced at Kempton, I remember. But he did come home well and was only beaten four lengths at the line.

“After that run I thought all he would do is stay, even though the Scottish race was a full mile further.

“He was always a good jumper and was a pretty straightforward ride, so I was confident after that – if he got to Ayr in one piece.” He so nearly didn’t.

Three weeks before the race, Crook took a trachea wash – not because anything appeared to be wrong, but more as a precaution.

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Crook. “The wash came back mucky. He had some dirt in his lungs and I thought the dream was over. He had to go on a course of antibiotics, but luckily for me, the cut off date when he was eligible to run again after the treatment, was two days before the race. So the dream stayed alive.”

Nothing was left to chance in the build-up to the race, including Crook sleeping outside Ryalux’s box. His final piece of work, where he sped past a couple of Karl Burke-trained Flat horses, showed he was over his ailment and there must have been a premonition that he was destined to win at Ayr. Crook wrote in the programme for the forthcoming Middleham Open Day “come to our yard and you might see the Scottish National winner”. Not a fence had been jumped.

All the pieces of the jigsaw were finally slotting into place, and a further bonus came when the declarations emerged.

Shotgun Willy, pulled-up in the Grand National the previous week, was kept in the race and carried top weight of 11st 12lb, meaning Ryalux crept in off an attractive-looking 10st 5lb.

Crook’s faith never wavered.

“I thought he was good enough to do it. Stamina was the only issue just because he hadn’t been over an extreme trip before.

“I was nervous. It had been a long build up – and we all slept in the horsebox the night before the race. But the ground was right, Richie knew the horse well by this stage and I knew I had got him spot on.”

Getting a horse to a big race is a challenge in itself, but then everything has to go right, and in a 19-runner handicap, featuring Gunther McBride again, Sudden Shock, Stormez, the 2002 victor Take Control and the aforementioned Shotgun Willy, there is plenty that can go wrong.

Andy Crook: trainer of Ryalux

Luckily for Crook and McGrath, things were pretty straightforward for most of the race, as McGrath explains: “It all went really well – his jumping was great and I remember Robert Thornton turning to me during the race (he was on the eventual third, Spendid) and saying he wouldn’t mind being on mine.”

Turning for home it became fairly obvious that barring accidents Ryalux would be involved in the finish as the field had thinned out markedly, but one irritant who refused to go away was the diminutive six-year-old Stormez.

He’d not been going especially well for much of the race and needed plenty of stoking – but what better man to have on your back for that type of horse than ‘AP’?

It looked as though he was going to pull another big race out of the fire, but crucially he hit the front after the last, going a length up, therefore giving Ryalux a target.

Running hard against the rail, Ryalux inched closer and overhauled Stormez and McCoy a couple of yards from the line to win.

Crook himself thought the game was up after the last: “I thought we were second best. But he really got down and dug deep. If we’d been in front over the last we would have got caught I think – so Stormez taking the lead helped us.

“It was a great feeling knowing that we had done it, although I was quite quiet watching it – it was my wife Jackie doing the screaming!

“It hit me more in the winner’s enclosure afterwards and I remember being interviewed by Lesley Graham on Channel 4 racing.

“I had to drive the horsebox home again so there was no big party straight away – we had one a couple of weeks later – and the open day visitors did get to see the Scottish National winner after all.”

For McGrath, who now runs a pre-training yard, it was the pinnacle of his riding career: “I rode a Cheltenham Festival winner for Wilf Storey called Great Easeby but I was too young to appreciate it really.

“I had some nice winners too on horses like Ossmoses and Radiation but I would say Ryalux gave me my best moment in the saddle.

“Although I beat McCoy I wasn’t really aware of that at the time – it’s just head down and battle all the way – luckily this lad did that.”

Ryalux only ran again four times after that and was never the same, with an injured pelvis to blame. It robbed Crook of the chance to take him to Aintree, and later that year there was a sad postscript as Ryalux’s owner, Mr Lomas, died from a brain tumour.

Ryalux, however, keeps going and this year turned 28. He is now in the care of Alan Muir, who looks after him on his smallholding, near to where he was trained.

“He is showing signs of age now but he is still very content,” he says. “He goes out every day with a few mares I’ve got, and there’s not a bad bone in him. He can do it all himself too – you don’t even need to put a head collar on him.

“In his head he’s still a young horse and he hates being in. And Andy still brings visitors to come and see him which is nice. He’s never been ridden since he came to me, he more than earned his stripes on the racecourse and he’s great to have around.”

Despite having such a big win at the start of his career, it wasn’t the platform Crook hoped it would be subsequently, although there was some bad luck involved: “I trained a horse called Stormin’ Native, and although I don’t like to say it, he could have been better than Ryalux.

“He won at Haydock under Richard Johnson but was then fatally injured on his next outing.

“I had Bocamix who was placed in a Grade 1 and a great old boy, Matmata De Tendron who won ten races for us.”

Crook still trains now, and Ryalux’s colours are still in use – and winning. The future of the yard will eventually fall, however, to his assistant and daughter, Amy.

She was 12 when Ryalux won and remembers it well.

“I thought he would win, but it’s only now, much later, I realise how hard it was to do. It definitely sunk in more later on and it would be lovely to find another Ryalux going forward.”

Geraint Thomas once said after his only Tour De France win: “If I am a one-hit wonder, it’s not a bad one to have.” The same could be said of Crook, who temporarily derailed the Pipe/McCoy machine with his lion-hearted chaser.

More from our Fans' Favourites series:

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Menorah: the much-loved 'matinee idol' who reigned at Sandown

Mad Moose: the serial refusenik who drove his team crazy and his fans wild

Sprinter Sacre: the perfect racehorse in every way

Silver Streak: the grey warrior who had an unconventional route to the top

Badsworth Boy: untouchable Champion Chase hat-trick hero who set the bar so high

Might Bite: 'He's a Grade 1 Mad Moose' – and that's his owner speaking!

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We didn’t have anything in the yard that could go with Ryalux – even if he was on an off day
E.W. Terms