GEOFF BROWN is used to working with teams. As well as running a highly successful house-building company, he is also chairman of St. Johnstone FC, a role he’s held since 1986, making him Scotland’s longest serving football club chairman.
In a fortnights time St Johnstone will appear in a Scottish Cup semi-final against Motherwell with the prize of a Scottish Cup Final appearance at Hampden Park and the realisation of a long-held dream for Brown at stake.
Before then though, Brown will be relying on another sporting team to help deliver what may be the first leg of a unique sporting double for the Perthshire based businessman because he is also the owner of Silver By Nature, a 9 year old racehorse who goes to next weekend’s Grand National with a live chance of delivering Scotland’s first National win in over thirty years.
Although Silver By Nature and his jockey, Peter Buchanan, will be on their own once the tapes go up at Aintree, their preparation for the big race has relied on a large team back at Arlary Stables, near Kinross, Fife, home to trainer Lucinda Russell. And it is a team that would rival any football club for dedication and organisation.
Watching Silver By Nature prepare for his big test, both in the yard and on the gallops, it’s easy to imagine that Brown probably wishes his footballers were as well behaved. Taking all the attention in his stride Silver By Nature looks relaxed as he heads out to the yard’s all-weather gallop with big race jockey Peter Buchanan on board.
Stamina is his strength and while many pundits point to the form-book and suggest that he will need soft ground to show his best form, Buchanan believes that it is a strong test of stamina that brings out the best in him rather than solely soft ground. He’s hopeful that the four and a half mile test at Aintree will provide the stamina challenge that his horse thrives on, regardless of the ground.
Of course a bit of rain will help sap the stamina of his rivals, as it did when Silver By Nature stormed home in his Grand National prep race, Haydocks’s Blue Square Gold Cup, but the jockey feels good ground won’t hinder his horse unduly, “good ground will be ideal for him I think, he travels well and is a better horse on good ground.”
Buchanan then reflected on Silver By Nature’s run in the Welsh National in late December 2009, on ground officially given as heavy, for evidence to support his view, “the ground was still frozen underneath that day and it was top of the ground. He travelled so well on it, he pulled my arms out that day.”
Buchanan has ridden twice before in the big race, getting round in his own time on Russell’s Strong Resolve in 2005 after a first fence blunder effectively ended any chance of winning. His other experience also involved a first fence disaster, that time his race came to an abrupt halt as his partner Tyneandthyneagain ended up on the floor in 2006. You can bet that he will be relieved to get that first fence behind him next Saturday.
While horse and jockey go through their paces up the all-weather gallop both trainer Lucinda Russell and her partner, former champion jockey Peter Scudamore, watch attentively. The picturesque setting of the gallop, overlooking the mist-strewn Loch Leven and Loch Leven Castle (where Mary Queen Of Scots was once held captive), are temporarily lost on Scudamore as he keenly assesses every detail, calling for one of the team to come up and do some harrowing of the surface after the string have worked.
Trainer Lucinda Russell isn’t new to success. In fact she’s used to it. A highly successful eventing career was followed by a dominant spell in the point-to-point field. She then turned her attention to publicly training racehorses as it seemed a natural next step. “We were training point-to-pointers for fun while focusing on eventing and they just kept winning. The owners kept asking me when I was going to train under rules”, she says, as if mildly surprised by it all.
She doesn’t come across as fiercely ambitious but clearly has a strong pride in what has been achieved by the yard and is justifiably proud of both the facilities and the team of staff that she has built up over the last 15 years. “The girls that work here and the team we have here are just fantastic”, she enthuses.
Behind her slightly reserved demeanour one senses a quiet determination and confidence. She certainly has faith and confidence in her horse. “On heavy or very soft ground he’d be among the best horses in the country”, she states and, when pressed on concerns over good ground, she underlined Buchanan’s belief that the horse doesn’t necessarily need soft ground, “he has form as a novice on good ground.”
By far the highest-profile member of the Arlary team is Russell’s partner, former champion jockey Peter Scudamore, who has been part of the operation for the last four years or so.
Like Russell, Scudamore talks with pride about the achievements of the team, enthusing about the facilities that have been built up and about new developments, such as a new sand based gallop they are building at the satellite yard where they currently base about twenty of their seventy plus horses. “We’ve had our best season ever with 36 winners so far and we want to go forward from that”, he says.
Scudamore appears very much at ease in his role and, throughout our discussion, contrasted it with his former career as a jockey and the training partnerships he worked in with Nigel Twiston-Davies and his father, Michael, who himself won the Grand National as a jockey in 1959. “I was so lucky to do what I did and I was lucky I gave up early enough to experience life in other ways.”
He later continues, “I should have enjoyed it more but when I look back on my time with Martin Pipe, people think that was a sour time, but we laughed and laughed and laughed. I think I enjoy things more now.”
As we stand over-looking the schooling arena, in front of Arlary House and adjacent to the yard, he seems very content, “I’m happy now, I’ve moved on in my life and I’m ever so proud of Thomas riding and Michael training. I am a little bit more relaxed, I don’t have the pressures I did then. My life is fulfilled through what we are doing here and I love to see the kids doing well.”
It’s clear that Russell and Scudamore operate very much as a team and both were keen to stress this when I spoke to them about what had changed since Peter’s arrival. “The main thing that Peter has brought is that we have a much more professional attitude now. I used to ride out and try to do everything but you can’t do that with the number of horses we have now so I stand back and concentrate on managing things”, Russell commented, echoing Scudamore’s earlier observation that “Lucinda is a bit more laid back now, more managerial”. Scudamore also singled out Russell’s attention to detail as a major strength.
Scudamore clearly revels in the hands-on approach, focusing on working closely with the horses, supervising the gallops work and playing a key role in helping Russell place the horses and develop running plans. There is also no doubt that much of what he learned from his time as Martin Pipe’s retained jockey and during his time with Twiston-Davies and with his father’s training operation has been applied here.
Horses are prepared very much in line with the methods used by Pipe, “quality work in short bursts” according to Scudamore as we watch most of the string make their way up the gallop three times in quick succession (although Silver By Nature, already fit and just being kept on the boil, only went up twice).
Scudamore praised the quality of the woodchip gallop, joking that he fell in love with it before he fell for his partner, and compares it in favourable terms with others he’s seen. “The gallop is not quite as stiff as Nigel’s but would be a little tougher than the one the Pipes use”.
But, big influence he undoubtedly is, it is Russell whose name is on the licence and it is at her door that the buck stops. “We discuss virtually everything but ultimately the final decision lies with Lucinda.”
Being among the most northerly of professional racing yards has its drawbacks. Travel to and from the races is time consuming and, in days of ever-increasing fuel prices, costly. But both are keen to stress that there are plenty benefits too, even with the travel.
“Some horses travel better overnight, when we’re travelling a distance the horse will be in his stable at the course the night before, they don’t miss any feeding times and they have time to relax before they race”, Scudamore explains.
“Races can also be easier to win in the north than the south where it’s a bit more competitive and horses can be easier to place in the north”, he adds.
Russell was also keen to stress how their location also helps ensure they have good staff, “there are lots of good people with a background in horses locally and in the Scottish Borders and there is a good work ethic here.”
The next big trip south will be one of the biggest any horse in the yard has ever undertaken. The Grand National is the world’s most famous horse race. Is the trainer feeling the pressure?
“I’ve been a bit surprised
by the level of interest, it does put a bit of pressure on us”, she says, with a relaxed smile that belies any nervousness she may feel at having the weight of Scotland’s racing expectation on her shoulders.
Scudamore is also relaxed. “It would be great to win the National but it isn’t everything”, he philosophises, but both understand how much such a win could mean to the yard as they try to move forward. “Our target next year is 50 winners, assuming we don’t have too much cold weather in the middle of it”.
There is an excitement around the yard
as Aintree looms but it is a positive excitement, not a nervous one.
Everyone seems relaxed and happy. Proud to show off Silver By Nature, who looks in fine spirits as he rolls around in the mud changing colour from grey to brown in an instant, but also proud of all the other horses, tomorrow’s horses. Horses such as Bold Sir Brian, an exciting novice who won recently at Kelso and who no one I spoke to could resist talking about.
Apart from the wily trainer that is. “Have they all been talking about him”, she says when I mention his name, as though she’d rather keep a little quiet about him, for now at least. (She says he’s a great prospect who’ll have another season’s hurdling where anything will be a bonus ahead of what they hope will be a real future as a chaser. He also runs at Aintree next weekend.)
But Bold Sir Brian is for another day. As the tack is hung up and the lads and lasses disperse, leaving the trainer in her office knee deep in paperwork, Silver By Nature is hosed down just outside the office window. The brown mud washes off readily, revealing that distinctive grey/silver coat and the finely honed athlete contained therein. A little terrier dashes about, stick in mouth looking for someone to play tug with, and everyone seems to know exactly what their job is, including him. “People talk a lot about teams but the team here really are great”, Russell concludes.
Perhaps St. Johnstone should pay a quick visit to Arlary stables before their Scottish Cup date with destiny the week after the Grand National. They need to be careful though, if Silver By Nature wins they may get caught up in one big party. And, until the second leg of Geoff Brown’s unique sporting double is over with, one suspects the party may be on hold, but only for him and St. Johnstone FC.
You get the feeling it’d take more than a mere football match to stop Arlary Stables celebrating.