Having faced the All Blacks, Australia and France in his rugby-playing days, the prospect of tackling jump racing’s biggest names at the Cheltenham Festival holds few fears for self-confessed ‘little-man’ trainer Sandy Thomson.
While Willie Mullins is set to exceed his 2015 raiding party of 50-plus runners over the four-day fixture, Thomson, who has care of Scotland’s premier steeplechaser Seeyouatmidnight, will bring south a maximum of three contenders from his Borders base.
Other figures on the northern circuit have confessed to feeling intimidated by mixing with the sport’s elite at Cheltenham, but the one-time Scotland B winger believes his experience on the rugby field will stand him in good stead for March’s challenge.
“I’d like to think that it won’t faze me,” he said.
“I have the experience to draw on of playing for the South of Scotland against the All Blacks and Australia, and also of being up against [Scotland’s finest full-back] Andy Irvine who was my great hero when I was a 12 or 13-year-old, but who as an 18-year-old I had to play against him – and he was still in the Scotland squad.
“You had to treat them with respect for what they did, but you just had to get stuck into it.
“I remember a Scotland B day out in France with the crowd right there by us, and there were firecrackers and cockerels and all sorts. That was quite an experience.
“So, of course, I have huge respect for what they [Mullins and other higher profile trainers] have done but that doesn’t mean I’m going to shy away from them.”
Seeyouatmidnight, who holds entries in the Festival’s Gold Cup, National Hunt Chase and RSA Chase – the latter for which he’s fourth favourite the most likely destination – proved himself a hurdler of high quality when a gallant seventh in Cheltenham’s 2015 staging of the World Hurdle.
But it’s been in races over larger, steeplechase fences where he’s since flourished with successes at Kelso and at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day where, ridden by jockey Brian Hughes and relishing the heavy going, he saw off fellow big-race hopeful Blaklion in taking style.
Plans for an intended Festival prep at Wetherby had to be scrapped because of a minor chill, probably contracted while returning from the gallops in a sudden snowstorm, and the eight-year-old, owned by Thomson’s wife Quona, will now race at Newcastle on February 27, or head direct to his Cotswold target where supporters will be hoping ground conditions do not dry up too much.
The enforced absence from Wetherby coincided with Scotland’s losing start to their Six Nations campaign, a double disappointment I imagined for the rugby-loving trainer who has a total of 25 horses on a 500-acre family farm near Duns, Berwickshire.
But when we met at Musselburgh races just before he sent out the 12th winner – at a strike-rate of close to one success in five runners – of what is proving to be his best season, the mood was surprisingly upbeat.
He said: “It’s funny, it actually ended up a bit of a relief we couldn’t run ‘Midnight’ at Wetherby.
“Usually that’s not been a ‘great’ race – it’s been a ‘good’ race – and suddenly you get three highly-rated horses there, so it’s a ‘proper’ race when you just want a prep, and I knew what the [heavy] ground would be like even though it was drying, so I was happy not to run.”
As for the rugby, Thomson, who played for Kelso when they were Scottish champions in the 1980s, continued: “The rugby for us happened on the Friday night because Quona’s son Tom Galbraith played for Scotland against England in the under-20s in Glasgow and they won 24-6, four tries to nothing.”
Now recovered, Seeyouatmidnight, bought relatively cheaply after failing to reach his £20,000 reserve at Doncaster Bloodstock Sales, could be joined at Cheltenham by stablemates Seldom Inn (Pertemps Final) and Spirit Of Kayf (Bumper).
They would represent a significant presence at jump racing’s annual championships for the Northern circuit which, through a lack of investment and consequent shortage of expensively-purchased runners, has seen the struggle to compete with southern cousins intensify.
Thomson said: “I heard a trainer in the South say she can go into a pub of a Saturday night and there might be half a dozen people who’ve got some loose cash that might take a leg in a horse or something.
“Here that just wouldn’t happen. It is difficult – it’s purely a lack of money. We can train just as well as anybody else, [but] they get all the ammunition.
“Everybody in the North is so up for it with Seeyouatmidnight, and we are very aware he is something of a standard-bearer.”
On the RSA Chase, he added: “I’m not sure [the Gordon Elliott-trained favourite] No More Heroes has beaten anything much – those he has beaten haven’t run that well – and our form looks good, so it would great to show it can be done.”
Watch out you bigger boys, ‘Midnight’ is aiming to ruin your afternoon.
The RSA Chase is on Wednesday, March 16 – the second day of the four-day Cheltenham Festival.