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RACING: Knight is hoping for Bay of plenty
It's a case of if at first you don’t succeed, try again for Calgary Bay in the John Smith’s Grand National at Aintree on Saturday.
Twelve months ago, the nine-year-old, from Henrietta Knight’s West Lockinge stables, near Wantage, pitched Hadden Frost into the turf at the fourth fence.
And ever since, the trainer has set her sights on returning to Merseyside with the bay gelding for another crack at the world’s greatest steeplechase.
Stepping out of his box for morning exercise, Calgary Bay’s coat gleams in the spring sunshine.
“He does look wonderfully well, doesn’t he?” purrs Knight.
There is no denying that, but how does his well-being compare to previous campaigns. “It is difficult to tell,” adds the trainer. “All the papers say he is a much better horse at the beginning of the season.
“But he is a fresher horse this year and he is very full of himself.”
Dominic Elsworth, who has taken over the ride this season, is given a leg-up on Calgary Bay and makes his way to the foot of the gallops.
As she drives to the top of the hill, Knight dismisses the practice favoured by many trainers in giving their charges a pop over home-made National-style fences.
“Tim Forster trained three Grand National winners and he didn’t use practice fences,” she says. “He used to say if they won’t jump one when they see one, they’ll never jump one.”
Within seconds, Calgary Bay thunders up the all-weather gallop, flashing by in a blur.
With the muscles rippling on his flanks and his hind-quarters, he walks back down the hill and begins jig-jogging as he approaches the longer gallop, seemingly eager for more action.
Back in the yard, Somersby – Knight’s other leading light these days – is bucking and kicking in a neighbouring box as his stablemate returns.
Reflecting on her charge’s early exit 12 months ago, Knight says: “Last year he just over-jumped. I think he was too free.
“It did surprise me that he fell because I thought he was one horse that would jump round.
“Terry (Biddlecombe, her husband) thinks he got too revved up. So we will definitely look at being more settled this year and drop him out, and hunt him over the first circuit.”
Charged with employing those tactics on the 25-1 chance is Elsworth, the pair having forged a sound partnership this term.
They landed a Grade 3 handicap chase at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, before defying top weight in the Sky Bet Chase over three miles at Doncaster at the end of January.
Reflecting on their most recent win, Elsworth, who lives at Hungerford, adds: “He did it ever so nicely. He just got into one of those jumping and galloping rhythms. I don’t think he was at the end of his tether.
“There will definitely be shorter-priced horses than him that I would rather not ride.”
Knight also believes her charge, owned by Lincolnshire-based Camilla Radford, who continues to battle cancer, has come of age.
“I think he is a much stronger horse this year and a better horse,” she adds. “I don’t think he would be out of place in the Gold Cup next year.”
However, Calgary Bay’s progress has also caught the eye of the handicapper and as a result, her gelding is set to carry 11st 6lb – 10lb more than last year.
Knight hopes this will be offset by Calgary Bay’s size – he measures an imposing 17.2 hands.
“He is well able to carry weights,” she says. “The weight is not ideal because the last horse to carry a weight as big as this and win was Red Rum, and he was a tiny horse.”
A greater concern for the trainer is the prospect of an easy surface.
“We don’t want soft ground, and I have read it is going to be raining a lot,” she adds.
It will also be a big day for groom Claire Law, who says: “I am excited. I am not nervous at all. I have 100 per cent faith in the horse and even more faith in Hen, and I am looking forward to it.”