There are unpromising beginnings and then there is Buywise, the Grand National contender who was cheaply bought as a youngster, had trouble jumping, was found to have metalwork in a hind leg and whose present owner had to be talked into taking him as a job lot with another, more obviously talented beast. “Everyone felt sorry for me,” said Hywel Jones, whose green and red colours Buywise will carry at Aintree next Saturday. “They thought I’d bought the runt.”
Evan Williams, the Vale of Glamorgan trainer who has made Buywise look a wise buy, used to have serious doubts about the horse’s idiosyncratic manner of getting over a fence. “I didn’t want to risk my first jockey on him in a race,” Williams once said, and so Adam Wedge was on board instead of Paul Moloney when Buywise set out on his jumping career four years ago.
He proved surprisingly successful, despite bashing through occasional obstacles. At the end of his first winter as a chaser Williams had the horse scanned to see if there was a physical explanation for what Buywise was doing. Metal pins and a plate were found in his left hind leg, the legacy of an operation years before he went through the sales ring.
“They’re sold as seen, you see,” Williams says, philosophically. “Part of the wonderful mystery of buying horses at public auction.”
His bionic leg was getting in Buywise’s way to some extent but he seemed to have found his own way of coping and he continued to win prize money, even if it was usually for finishing placed. It was established that Moloney, who displaced Wedge as soon as the horse won a race, would give him time to warm to his jumping, allowing for a strong, late finish that would hopefully carry them into the argument.
Buywise became a byword for frustration among punters as he repeatedly stormed home from a mile back and found the winning post coming too soon. After a particularly heartbreaking finish in 2015, one Timeform pundit tweeted: “I could crywise.”
This season something has changed. “I don’t know for what reason, he’s just been a different horse in the way he moves than he ever has,” Williams says. “I don’t know why that is, whether all that metal work in his back leg has just granulated up or what have you. Look, if I gave you a reason, I’d be making it up. All I know is he’s a smoother operator at home than he ever has been.”
At Sandown in January Buywise’s strong finish came in plenty of time for him to record an impressive victory, his first for three years. Leighton Aspell, his jockey that day, urged Williams to aim the horse at the National, which counts for quite a bit, Aspell having won the Aintree race twice in the past four years.
Aspell hoped to take the ride himself next Saturday but will have to watch the race in a neck brace after an ill-timed injury. Moloney having long since retired, Wedge will bereunited with the horse he used to ride when the job was too risky for others.
Wedge is appropriately protective of Buywise’s reputation and will not hear of any suggestion there might be a bit of a quirk in his attitude that has contributed to his low strike rate over the years. “No! No, far from it. I just think he’s been very unlucky.
“He’s a lovely horse to deal with in the yard. He knows what goes on, knows the routine. He could almost train himself.
“I think he stays a lot better now. He ran in the National a couple of years ago and got round. Hopefully everything falls right on the day and we can have a bit of luck. We can all dream.”
Williams has yet to win a National, though his runners have been placed five times. Buywise has a fine chance of making that six but could he actually poke his nose in front and become the first Welsh winner of the race since 1905? “I never expect too much,” the trainer sighs. “I just hope they come back in one piece and anything more than that’s a bonus.”
Greg Wood’s Grand National tips
Tony Martin has saddled a handful of Grade One winners over jumps, and even a Group One winner on the Flat in Italy a few months ago. When it comes to handicaps, though, there are few trainers over the last two decades with a record that even approaches Martin’s, and he may add the most famous handicap of all to his record next Saturday when his chaser Anibale Fly lines in the Grand National at Aintree.
Martin took the Irish Grand National in the early part of his career in 2001, and has landed a series of major handicaps on the Flat including the Ebor, Cambridgeshire and Cesarewitch. He is a master of the art of getting a horse into a big race on a competitive weight and appears to have done so again with Anibale Fly, for all that the eight-year-old made his most recent start in National Hunt’s most prestigious Grade One.
Native River and Might Bite had the Gold Cup to themselves last month, but Anibale Fly ran on well after a couple of minor jumping errors to finish just four lengths adrift of the runner-up. That backed up his winning form in the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at Leopardstown in December, when he carried 11st 8lb to victory, and makes him a huge runner off a mark of 159 next Saturday.
Ucello Conti is also interesting at around 25-1. He has looked a natural over the big fences in the last two Nationals but has had no luck at all in running, while Gold Present’s overall profile is encouraging if he can bounce back from a below-par run at Cheltenham. Milansbar, the mount of Bryony Frost, has a genuine chance too, not least if rain arrives at Aintree during the week: he races prominently, stays all day and should line up with a handy racing weight of 10st 5lb.