Scotland expects: Seeyouatmidnight the big Borders hope for Grand National glory
David Carr talks to Sandy Thomson about his Aintree contender
First published on Saturday, April 14, 2018, and originally available to Members' Club subscribers. Click here to sign up
If this southern raid succeeds, nobody can say they weren’t warned. There’s a lot of history behind Seeyouatmidnight’s bid for the Randox Health Grand National.
The Scottish Borders has been renowned for its horses and horsemanship since the marauding Reivers were making such a nuisance of themselves in the 16th century and one family has long set its sights on plundering the greatest prize in racing.
Major Moffat Thomson, who made his money in carpets, started it off when he took up hunting and racing, and built Lambden Stables just north of Kelso in the 1920s.
He bred a bonny chaser called MacMoffat, who had the double misfortune of finding just one too good in the Nationals of 1939 and 1940.
The mere stripling who chased home Workman and Bogskar was then denied a crack at the race in his prime as the war intervened – he had to wait until 1946 for a third go and can hardly be blamed for failing to get round at the age of 14.
Three decades later Thomson’s son David might have gone one place better at Aintree with Half Awake, only for injury to intervene.
Now half a century further on, David's son Sandy is bidding to make it third time lucky, though he’ll actually become the first master of Lambden to have a runner in the National in his own name.
For MacMoffat was owned and trained by a neighbour by the time of his Aintree heroics, as Thomson explains: "My grandfather bred him but said he was a liability. He was such a handful that he'd jump out of the field and always seemed to be getting himself into trouble so he sold him. I think he regretted it!
"But the family has stood us in great stead down through the years, Half Awake was the same line and Wide Awake who has been running recently is the seventh generation."
Half Awake showed plenty of his ancestor’s pluck and jumping ability when landing the first running of the Greenall Whitley Chase at Haydock in 1968.
"I was only seven or eight at the time and I remember watching it in my aunt's sitting room on a wee black and white television," recalls Thomson, who was old enough to understand the "bit of a nightmare" of what happened next.
"He was entered in the National but he went to Cheltenham first, ploughed through the fence at the top of the hill and came back with a touch of a tendon."
Not that those memories fired the third generation of the family with a burning ambition to succeed where his forebears had failed.
Far from it, as Thomson, 56, reflects: "There was never really the intention to get involved in racing. I played a lot of rugby and horses were very much a bit of fun. I rode in a couple of point-to-points but it wasn't feasible to play rugby and try to lose weight!"
His time on the wing, incorporating two division one championships and a memorable defeat of the all-conquering Australians in a South Of Scotland jersey at Hawick in 1984, was shared with time on the farm as rugby union was an amateur sport at the time.
But there are no regrets at missing out on the riches that Kelso’s answer to Jonny Wilkinson might expect nowadays and Thomson says: "Though the money would be nice it's a very different game now. It was a great time to be playing in Scotland and Kelso could compete with anybody."
He has been competing with plenty since tumbling into racing by accident, after he and Quona "started buying the odd horse" as his wife rekindled her childhood interest in the game.
What started as a family project became a business, and the permit-holder a licensed trainer, thanks to the exploits of promising hurdler Netminder.
"Somebody rang up and wanted to buy him," Thomson recalls. "We sold half of him but that meant we had to get a licence – and it's grown from there.”
In 2013 came a day at Doncaster sales that has assumed almost mythical status – Quona on crutches yet sprinting past her bewildered husband to get a closer look at an unsold lot who took her eye and insisting they buy the unwanted five-year-old.
A fine story, yet Thomson insists: "It's absolutely 100 per cent true. It was one of those things that was just meant to be. He moved beautifully, that's what really struck me. You could say he was a bit narrow and his sire Midnight Legend wasn't that fashionable but suddenly he started producing the winners."
One of whom was their buy Seeyouatmidnight, who showed a 66-1 debut success at Hexham was no fluke by landing the Grade 2 Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock before developing into a high-class performer over fences, beating today’s rival Blaklion in the Dipper Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham and finishing a close third in the Scottish Grand National at Ayr.
Yet that was not enough for any of the game’s big-money owners to snap him up until David and Patricia Thompson secured a private deal early this week.
So it was the Thomsons alone who have suffered through a tortuous year with Seeyouatmidnight, whose 2016-17 season was ended by a suspensory injury and whose 2017-18 threatened never to start.
The never-ending grimness of the weather put paid to successive opportunities at Kelso, Doncaster and Carlisle, with at least one run over fences needed for the team to be eligible for Aintree.
Hence last month’s eight-hour trek to Newbury, where he finished third in a 2m4f chase on his first run for almost exactly a year and delighted his trainer, who claimed never to have been unduly worried about National qualification.
"I was always quite happy we'd get a run into him somewhere," he says. "And he'd had more work into him by the time he went to Newbury and he was probably fitter so it took less out of him. I'm certainly delighted where we are with him now."
Neither the unique fences nor the marathon trip faze Thomson as he looks forward to his first runner in a race that stalwarts Harry The Viking and Neptune Equester have missed the cut for in the past.
"He's very good over a fence,” the trainer says. "Before he went to Newbury he hadn't jumped a fence in nearly 16 months but he was still quick and accurate and that's about as big a track as there is in the country.
"The one thing the winner has to do is stay and I've no reason to believe he won't. If you look at past winners they have form in one of the big long-distance chases and he ticks that box."
A year on from One For Arthur’s win for Fife, Seeyouatmidnight will be the Borders’ best hope of victory since the ultra-tough Freddie captured the public imagination by finishing second for Reg Tweedie in 1965 and 1966.
"The Borders has a large horse population and always has done because of our 'marauding' nature - it would be great for the local community if Seeyouatmidnight could win."
Hughes ready for Aintree challenge
The fences may have got safer but the race has not necessarily got any easier. Ask Brian Hughes.
He may be the top jockey in the north, second only to Richard Johnson in the jockeys' championship this season and last, yet he hasn't got round in six Nationals – departing at the first fence in three of his last four attempts.
"A lot of the people I ride for don’t really have National horses so I've always picked up spares," reasons the man who’s been on board for Seeyouatmidnight’s last four wins.
"This is probably the first time since Tidal Bay I’ve ridden a horse who I really know. I fell off him at the tenth but Sam Twiston-Davies fell off him as well, so I wasn’t the only one – he was a bit of an awkward jumper!"
Hughes has proven himself over the National fences with wins in the Topham Chase and in the Grand Sefton and he's hoping Seeyouatmidnight has what it takes.
"We haven’t seen much of him the last season or two but he’s a decent horse," he says.
"I’m obviously going to see the positives and I don't know what a National winner is because I’ve never sat on one but he ticks a lot of the boxes.
"He’s a good jumper, he’s a good stayer and he’s got a bit of class."
Members can read the latest exclusive interviews, news analysis and comment available from 6pm daily on racingpost.com