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Scottish National report

Unlike last week at Aintree, when a 33/1 shot landed the spoils for the pinstickers and those who like to back greys, it was the punters who got it right at Ayr yesterday as the well-backed Mergio landed the Coral Scottish Grand National under an inspired Timmy Murphy ride.

Like Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond, Merigo loves Ayr. In nine runs now at the track, he has won five times, and he has never finished out of the first three. By contrast, he has run in 18 races at other tracks, and he has won just two of them.

Winner of the Scottish Grand National in 2010 as a whipper-snapper nine-year-old, had Merigo not been beaten three parts of a length by Beshabar in the race last year, they probably would have given him the trophy for keeps yesterday as a three-time winner. They still might. It is difficult to think now that the Scottish National doesn’t belong to Merigo.

It was never going to be easy for the Pistolet Bleu gelding to go out again yesterday and win it back as an 11-year-old. Before yesterday, only one 11-year-old had won the race since Moorcroft Boy did it for the older brigade back in 1996, and plenty had tried. Recent history tells us that, like a lot of these staying handicap chases, the Scottish National is a young man’s race.

The handicapper had given Merigo a chance, however, by allowing him compete off a mark that was 8lb lower than last year’s mark. Also, trainer Andrew Parker had set yesterday’s race as his target since this day last year, and he had trained him accordingly. Merigo had warmed up by winning a handicap chase over three miles of yesterday’s course back in March, the first race that he had won since the 2010 Scottish National. And yesterday on Whitletts Road, with Murphy as orchestrator, the pieces all fell into place, and the plan came to fruition.

When Merigo won the race two years ago, he was probably a little too keen through the early stages of the race, too eager, he was in danger of expending too much energy in trying to convince his rider to allow him go faster. Different story yesterday. His 11-year-old limbs were moving as fast as they could for most of the extended four-mile trip.

His jumping kept him in it. He hardly missed a beat. On several occasions through the race, when it looked like he might struggle to hold his place, a fence arrived, he jumped it in his stride, he retained his position and started looking for the next obstacle.

Even so, when Ryan Mania and Auroras Encore kicked on at the top of the home straight, it looked like Merigo would probably have to settle for second place again. Even at the final fence, it looked unlikely that he would be able to erode a two-length deficit. But that was to not take into account Merigo’s courage and willingness and stamina.

Under a typical Murphy drive, after running and jumping his heart out for four miles, Merigo dug even deeper for the final half-furlong, gradually wore down the leader, and got up on the far side to break the tape a head in front of the gallant runner-up.

“He’s a superstar,” said Murphy of the horse owned by his father-in-law, Raymond Anderson Green. “He just comes to himself at this time of year. He has lost a bit of the pace that he used to have, he was going as fast as he could, but his jumping kept him in it. He’s a great horse to ride.”

“It takes time to get him fit,” said the winning trainer. “He still looks unfit now. He just loves Ayr though, and he loves the sun on his back. He has the heart of a lion. His whole year has been built around this.”

It was well built.

© The Sunday Times, 22nd April 2012