TRAINER Samantha England will have to pinch herself when she arrives at Cheltenham with her unheralded horse Alzammaar, Yorkshire’s sole runner on day three of the National Hunt Festival.
JP McManus, National Hunt racing’s greatest ever patron will be there. His Unowhatimeanharry is expected to beat 2015 champion Cole Harden in the Stayers’ Hurdle.
Gold Cup and Grand National-winning owner Michael O’Leary – whose progressive Empire of Dirt has the credentials to land the Ryanair Chase that his budget airline sponsors – will also be present.
And then there’s England who only knew yesterday, as final declarations closed at 10am, that Alzammaar had definitely made the cut for the Pertemps Final, a 24-runner handicap hurdle. Just in her second season as a licensed trainer, her jockey husband Jonathan, who she married last summer, is entrusted with the riding responsibilities while her parents Richard and Janet Drake – farmers from Guiseley – will be helping to drive the horse box from Yorkshire to the Cotswolds and prepare the colt for his ‘gold cup’.
Yet they do so on merit. England took out her licence in January last year – she had a winner with her very first runner courtesy of Star Presenter at Catterick – and can hardly believe that she has a Cheltenham horse so early in her burgeoning career.
“It will be amazing,” she told The Yorkshire Post.
“It’s the best racing in the world – and we’re there. I keep telling myself ‘what’s going to go wrong’?”
Yet Alzammaar is indicative of the challenges that confront up-and-coming trainers in a sport where the top owners, like the aforementioned McManus and O’Leary, have a monopoly on the very best horses because of their bottomless pockets.
England had gone to the sales at Newmarket last year when she was simply priced out of the market. “It was the biggest wake-up call of my life,” she confided. “I literally couldn’t afford anything that had four legs.”
However, it was the trainer’s good fortune that John Mott, who lives at the end of the lane leading to the England family’s farm, wanted to buy a horse in partnership with his friends Jerry Green, of Harrogate, and Dr Geoff Stuart of Horsforth.
The four each agreed to put £5,000 towards a horse and it was their good fortune that they were able to acquire Alzammaar – previously trained by Warren Greatrex – for £20,000 at Doncaster Sales last year. “It was the only horse we could afford,” said England.
Though the horse had won at Aintree as recently as last May, the gelding had fallen out of love with the game and needed to switch from a large stable – Lambourn-based Greatrex trains horses of the calibre of the aforementioned Grade One-winning staying hurdler Cole Harden – to a small yard where there are just a dozen horses in training.
Alzammaar’s first run for England came at Catterick in January when beaten half a length by the Brian Ellison-trained Nietzsche who franked the form by finishing third in yesterday’s Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle. Not only that, but the trainer cursed a three- pound weight in the handicap before heading to Musselburgh where her new acquisition had to finish in the first six to stand a chance of qualifying for today’s race.
Though not fully wound up, Alzammaar was fifth and the hike in the weights that England rued proved a blessing – it was just sufficient for her 50-1 outsider to make the cut for the Pertemps.
Both England, a former jockey, and her husband have not had the best of experiences at the Cheltenham Festival in the past. The trainer fell from Leac An Scail in the cross-country race in 2013 while her husband parted company from Cloudy Too at the final fence in the 2014 Gold Cup.
Yet, in the past year, they’ve proved particularly adept with the placement of their runners and 19 winners – 16 over jumps and three on the Flat – is testament to their ability to get the best out of their string.
“I can’t complain, can I?” added the trainer. “As long as the horse does his best, I can’t hope for more. But a Cheltenham winner, it sounds quite nice, doesn’t it?”