“THERE can’t be a lot happening in Ireland if you’re over here writing about an old grey broodmare!”
Thus began the banter as head lad Alan Roche from Co Waterford and work rider Lee Quirk from Tallaght teased Snow Leopardess’ groom Jess Benfield as they tacked up on my visit to Charlie Longsdon Racing in March.
A Snow Leopardess fairytale has been written in the minds of many as today’s big race at Aintree approaches. It’s been over a century since a mare who has foaled ran in the National and 70 years since a mare won it– could she do it? Her foal, tendon injuries, swimming off the pier in Wexford, and her sport horse embryos have all graced much of the press in the last couple of weeks, but in the relaxed Longsdon yard, it’s all about keeping things business as usual.
Standing by the rails in the soft Cotswolds landscape, on what feels like the first sunshine of the year, we watched quietly as Snow Leopardess tanked by us on the gallops, trademark blue bandages and pulling the ground towards her with a power that seems to come from more than just the muscle fibres firing in front of you.
With her statuesque frame and cool eye, the 10-year-old mare’s inherent strength is perhaps the most captivating thing about her; the immense power seems to manifest in her mind, not just her muscle; she has a touch of the Katie Taylor about her, you know, it’s just in there. “If you give her a day off, she’s pretty lethal.” Says Charlie. “She’s bigger than most of the geldings, and she knows she’s important.”
As much as I hoped for a read-it-here-first training scoop, Charlie admits that his strategy is just keeping it simple. “We don’t complicate things here. But, of course, soundness is always in the back of our minds with her. Everyone said she’ll never come back from being injured or from foaling. But she’s a tough, tough, tough mare.”
The preparation plan for the Grand National has mainly involved keeping the Fox-Pitt-bred Snow Leopardess’ routine the same. Longsdon took her to Lambourn at the end of March, “a case of dotting the Is and crossing the Ts” according to him. “We went there before she ran in the Becher Chase; Aidan [Coleman] just jumped them the once that day – two jumps – and said that’ll do. But you never know; the National fences are different. They can frighten a horse. They can spook them slightly. So we have got to be happy she will attack them like we saw that day she won in the Becher.”
This week Longsdon appears to be happy, as is Benfield, who perhaps knows Snow Leopardess better than anyone. Twenty-six-year-old Benfield has worked for Longsdon for 10 years and has ridden and cared for “The Queen” everyday since she arrived in the yard seven years ago. “She feels in good form; I’m happy with her,” she told me this week. “She does her work at 7 am in the first string and then goes on the walker. Then I put her out in the field for the rest of the day. She loves that routine, and there is no point changing anything now; best off to just keep her happy.”
Continuing with the “don’t fuss with the Leopardess” trajectory, Benfield and Snow Leopardess will not travel up to Aintree until today. “She doesn’t like going on the lorry; it can take up to half an hour to get her on. Once she’s on, she’s fine though! So we will leave around mid-morning because there’s no need to get there early - she can be a bit of a madam. She doesn’t like being told what to do, and you just have to let her be her.”
Having had three straight victories this season and carrying 10st 9lb for the National, Benfield is optimistic and has faith in jockey Aidan Coleman: “I’m sure she will be safe out there and have a good run round. She is clever enough to keep herself out of danger, and Aidan knows her like the back of his hand.
“Watching her go round, I will be emotional because she makes me emotional every time I watch her run, but as long as she comes back to me in one piece, I will always be proud of her. She is going in with a great story behind her, and if she wins, it would be an absolute dream come true. I will be cheering her on the whole way around, I probably won’t be able to watch, but I will try my best.”
Benfield will have plenty of support from her partner Lee Quirk as they watch Snow Leopardess face the fences today. As well as making me laugh on my visit, Quirk and Benfield also showed some Irish comradery and gave me a lift to Cheltenham. On the way, Quirk explained his route from Fettercairn Youth Horse Project in Tallaght to Longsdon’s yard.
“I would be from quite a rough area, and I loved being around the horses at the Youth Project. I ended up at Kildalton Equine College and went on to work for point-to-point trainer Sean Doyle in Wexford.
Sean really gave me the racing bug, and then working for Dermot Weld gave me even more racing experience. Charlie is a great man to work for, the yard is so relaxed, and of course, most importantly, we have our fair share of winners; that’s also how I met Jess and went on to set up our own business.”
Benfield and Quirk set up Harris Piece Stables a year ago and offer breaking and pre-training, sales livery and sales prep. “We have good facilities with a deep sand round pen, ideal for getting them going. We have plenty of quiet roads around us to take the youngsters hacking and plenty of turnout, which I think is important to keep their heads right. We also have a nice-sized school to teach them on the flat and start them jumping. We are just two minutes down the road from Charlie’s, and he allows us to use his facilities which is a great help!”
Those good starts are as important as the good finishes in racing. As Snow Leopardess faces her greatest finish line this afternoon, her half-brother Parramount (Mount Nelson) will soon appear on the track.
Both Longsdon and Roche lit up on the gallops when they talked about her six-year-old brother as he cruised by us. He is an impressive natural athlete of a horse and Charlie says of him: “In terms of natural ability, he has it. He has this massive stride; he’s actually got the potential to be a lot better than her.”
Whatever happens today, and however many people win or lose their bets on Snow Leopardess, she has made her mark and captured imaginations more than any other in this year’s race. That can only be good for racing.
And amidst all the press and tabloid hoo-ha, housewives’ choice and hopes of a Hollywood ending, Charlie concludes calmly: “It’d be nice if she goes well, wouldn’t it?”