Joe Farrell denies Ballyoptic in thrilling finish to Ayr marathon
A tough season for Pembrokeshire trainer Rebecca Curtis finished on the highest note as Joe Farrell held off Ballyoptic in a thrilling finish to the Coral Scottish Grand National at a sun-drenched Ayr.
Curtis, whose best seasonal total was 49 winners in 2012-13, had sent out just eight winners in the current campaign before the Adam Wedge-ridden Joe Farrell was confirmed the winner by a nose in a photo-finish.
"It's been an awful season, I lost half the horses I had and a lot of things happened in my personal life as well," said Curtis. "But I'll build for next season and start again hopefully. I'm trying to buy horses."
She added: "It's great for Mark Sherwood as he was the first owner I had in the yard. He rang me after I did an interview on Racing UK – he had a couple of horses elsewhere that he moved to me and he's been a great owner ever since. And Nigel Morris is another of my best owners, he's been really supportive.
"We've learned to give Joe Farrell plenty of cover as he does like to bowl along, but he's always jumped like an old handicapper. I knew he'd appreciate this better ground having run in bad conditions all winter."
This run was the first over a trip further than three miles for Joe Farrell and he showed all the enthusiasm of a horse who has done his racing over shorter. The question was whether he would last the stamina-sapping four miles, which he answered with a strong-staying performance.
Curtis continued: "I knew he was in great form at home and I was quietly confident that he'd run well. I hope he could be an Aintree horse but the trouble is getting up in the ratings to get into the National."
Curtis has enjoyed plenty of success with staying chasers in her ten-year career to date, but this was breaking new ground for her. Not only is the first prize of £122,442 the biggest single haul she has landed, but the surroundings were unfamiliar too.
"It sounds bad – and I'm quite well travelled – but I'd never been to Scotland before," she said. "It's a long way but it's great that it's paid off."
Among the horses to leave Curtis in the last season was the 2017 Reynoldstown Novices' Chase winner Bigbadjohn, who won on his first run for Nigel Twiston-Davies – Ballyoptic's trainer – in February.
After the race he said: "What can you say? He's been beaten by a hair's breadth. He stays really well, so we'll take him to the big staying chases next season. He's fine on soft, so we'll look at races like the Hennessy and hope for a bit more luck than today."
While Ballyoptic is a novice and Joe Farrell was stepping up to marathons for the first time, plenty of those immediately behind were old stagers.
Vintage Clouds contested the lead for much of the way under Danny Cook, adding a third here to his placed efforts in the Welsh National, Towton Novices' Chase (won by Ballyoptic) and Ultima at the Cheltenham Festival, while dual winner Vicente's bid for history looked ominously strong until he hit four out and could offer no more, finishing fifth.
Both are owned by Sir Trevor Hemmings, and his racing manager Michael Meagher said: "Vintage Clouds has run brilliantly, he's jumped well and really toughed it out. Vicente ran really well too – he just made a mistake four out and it got him off the bridle.
"They're both really tough horses and they always have hard races every time they run, that's the sort of horses they are. They'll be put out in a field now for a nice break and we'll bring them back next year."
Even for hard-bitten handicap chasers, there is always next year. For the first time this season, and not a moment too soon, Rebecca Curtis can start to look ahead with genuine hope of big prizes.
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