Shamal and Buddy Lammas lead Tai Ho and Stuart Higgins over the last fence in the Grand National Steeplechase.
Hunterville horseman Ken Duncan put a forgettable couple of years behind him when he produced Shamal for victory in the Racecourse Hotel Grand National Steeplechase at Riccarton today.
With novice jumps jockey Buddy Lammas in the saddle, the horse bred to be a cups winner relished the unseasonably good track conditions to take the blue riband jumps event from the gallant Southlander Tai Ho.
The favourite Chocolate Fish took third place, with Notabadrooster next ahead of Kings Deep and the veteran topweight Amanood Lad.
For Duncan, today’s win by the son of champion sire Zabeel and Group Two-winning racemare Mistrale was a career highlight in his seventh season of training, capping the Great Northern Hurdle and two Wellington Hurdles by his bonny mare Wee Biskit.
Just as importantly it marked a turning point, after Shamal had provided his solitary win from 90 starters for 2017-18 when he returned to form in a midweek steeplechase at Trentham in the final week of last season.
“It’s been a long winter. A virus went through the team and nothing much had been going right for a long time,” Duncan told www.theinformant.co.nz. “In fact it would be fair to say I’ve been pushing shit uphill for the past couple of years, so this means so much, it means everything.”
Duncan was given Shamal to train by his aunty Faith Taylor, who co-bred the big bay with her son, Trelawney Stud principal Brent Taylor. He then put together a partnership comprising himself and wife Jacques, Aunty Faith, brother Douglas and good friends Margaret Linklater and Andy Hurley.
Shamal won on the flat in the autumn of 2015 before being turned to hurdling, in which role he won once along with several feature placings including third and fourth in the Grand National Hurdles. Tendon problems put his career on hold, however, requiring treatment and a year away from racing.
When he returned he won his steeplechase debut in the spring of 2016, but placings were to be his lot until he scored at Trentham last month.
“He’s a good ground horse, it’s just been a matter of getting the right conditions,” Duncan explained. “When he won at Trentham and came through the race in good shape I decided to go straight into the Grand National, and the fine weather leading up to today was perfect for him.”
Lammas, the younger brother of successful northern flat jockey Cameron Lammas, gave riding away for two seasons due to increasing weight and when he decided to make a comeback last season he found flat rides hard to come by, so he turned to jumps riding.
He rode Shamal for the first time in the Trentham win and went into today’s big event with a record of three wins from 40 jumps rides. That statistic mattered little to Duncan, whose knowledge of the 31-year-old went well beyond anything he had achieved on the track.
“I’ve known Buddy since he was a kid riding at the shows and I’ve hunted with him a lot,” he said. “He’s always been a good rider, great balance and empathy for horses, so after he won on this horse at Trentham I didn’t hesitate in sticking with him.
“He gave the horse a lovely run in behind the leaders and when he angled him into the clear at the top of the straight, it was just pretty to watch.”
Sentimental favourite Amanood Lad made the early running before being joined in front by his stablemate Kings Deep. The lead alternated between the two for a time and Amanood Lad led the field over the second-last fence. He was under pressure soon after as first Tai Ho and then Shamal lodged their bids.
It became a two-horse affair from the top of the straight, but as hard as Tai Ho tried, he was unable to master Shamal, and the gallant southerner’s rider Stuart Higgins failed by a length and half to complete the Grand National double.
“He travelled beautiful, he gave me a lovely ride,” said an elated Lammas. “Around the turn I thought he could win; over the last I knew he had.
“It’s a huge thrill to win such a big race in my first year of jumps riding. I like this track too – that’s a Grand National to go with a Coupland’s Mile!”
The Grand National has been an historic race for members of the Duncan family. Ken Duncan’s grandfather and namesake had three second placings in the big event, while his great uncle John Duncan owned the Eric Temperton-trained 1976 winner Thun.