Josh Darling hit the road at seven on Saturday morning, pulling out of Sandy Thomson’s place at Lambden near Kelso with his mate Michael Williams upsides and a horsebox out the back with a calm Hill Sixteen comfortably housed within.
Darling and Williams, the travelling head lad and the assistant, were the advance party bound for Aintree, the rest following on later in the morning.
Hill Sixteen had been fed and watered. The vet had been in, the medical done, the paperwork completed. The 10-year-old was running in the Grand National later in the day. Not a familiar race, but a very familiar track.
He’d been over those National fences twice before. Finished an excellent second in the Becher Chase in 2021 and seventh in the same race in 2022. Jumped well. Travelled smoothly.
There’d been a problem with his wind earlier in the year but that was fixed now. In the parlance of the game, he’d had an interrupted preparation, hence his fancy odds, but everyone at Thomson’s yard was buzzing.
Ryan Mania, the Grand National-winning jockey, was in the saddle. They couldn’t have hoped for better. They were dreaming of victory, they were hoping for a place, they were optimistic of a clear round, but most of all, more than anything else, they just wanted him back safely.
Two Scottish horses went to Liverpool for the big race – one of them won and the other one died.
As Lucinda Russell brought the magnificent Corach Rambler into a packed and euphoric winners’ enclosure, Thomson was down at the first fence with the stricken Hill Sixteen, the horse’s neck broken, his life extinguished after a crashing fall.
Hill Sixteen jumped 398 hurdles and fences in 27 races on 15 different racecourses over four years and never fell once – until Saturday.
Those twin images of the two Scottish trainers are stark. The feted Russell and the lonely Thomson. “Triumph and disaster,” he said on Monday.
Not many trainers get to experience the elation Russell felt on Saturday, but the loss of a horse is something most go through at some stage. She might have been in a parallel universe, but Russell would have known what Thomson was going through.
There’s been so much fury in the aftermath of the National. The protestors from Animal Rising and beyond have condemned racing and racing has responded.
Thomson says he’s received hundreds and hundreds of emails and social media messages from strangers wanting to empathise with him, his staff and the owners of Hill Sixteen for the loss of a much-loved horse. And he’s also had floods of bile and hatred.
The world knows Hill Sixteen’s name in death, but never knew him in life. He made his way to Thomson’s yard in late 2021 via Sue Smith in West Yorkshire and Nigel Twiston-Davies in Gloucestershire.
He won a novices hurdle at Carlisle, a handicap chase at Sedgefield, another handicap chase at Ffos Las in Wales and a handicap hurdle at Wetherby. That second place at Aintree was better than the victories. Bigger stage, better race. He showed a lot of potential that day.
“He was one of these lovely big horses,” said Thomson. “He loved his carrots, loved galloping, enjoyed life. He didn’t have a bad bone in his body, a very honest horse. Just got on with it. The staff were really, really attached to him.
“We were in good spirits going down there. We knew he could jump and we knew he could stay. He arrived safely, got inspected by the vet again and everyone was happy.”
Having a runner in the National meant a lot to Thomson. His grandfather, Moffat, bought Lambden in the 1920s and bred a horse called MacMoffat, who finished second in the National in 1939 and 1940. His father, David, was a jockey and trainer. Horses are at the heart of his family story.
Horses and rugby. Thomson was a handy player. He won a Scottish championship with Kelso, played against New Zealand and Australia with South of Scotland, played Scotland B.
“Heading down to Aintree reminded me of my days sitting in a dressing room waiting to go out and play a match,” he said. You’re nervous but you’re normally all right when you get out there and everything starts.”
Only this time everything got worse, not better. He started to get a bad feeling about the protestors when Hill Sixteen was in the paddock. The race was delayed amid the chaos.
Hill Sixteen was saddled up and then the saddle was removed as the news came through that the start time had been pushed back. “That’s when all the problems started. People were getting agitated, horses were getting worked up and a bit hyper,” Thomson said.
“Something was going on, so we got Hill Sixteen back into his box, took the saddle off him and washed him down because it was a hot day.
“We squirted some water down his throat to rehydrate him and I went to see what was going on and was told that we needed to get back in the paddock, so we had to get the saddle back on him quickly. It was all very rushed.
“Everything was heightened. We were one of the last into the parade ring but we were in and out way faster than we should have been.
“The parade is so important. It gives horses a chance to compose themselves and get used to the crowd and the noise but none of that was possible because the authorities needed the race to start. The protestors had caused chaos.”
Thomson stayed in the paddock to watch the race, looking at it on television while saying to himself that he’d start to relax once Hill Sixteen was over the first fence and was safely on his way.
“You just feel more relaxed when they’re over the first. It’s not just the National, it’s any race.”
In the cavalry charge to the first, he saw some horses come down. The pictures moved on too quickly to see what had fallen but the news soon came over the commentary. Hill Sixteen was out of the race.
Thomson made his way to the bend after the winning post to see the horses go by in the hope of seeing the riderless Hill Sixteen ambling between horses, but there was no sign of him. There were loose horses, but not his loose horse.
He looked down the track and could make out a marshal waving a flag by the first fence. His heart sank. The flag usually means there’s a horse or rider on the floor and that the fence would be bypassed on the second circuit. Mania was on his feet, but Hill Sixteen was not.
“The alarm bells really started ringing. Ryan had to be taken away in an ambulance, so I didn’t see him. It was a desperate scene. Absolutely horrible. Going down there, you don’t know for sure, but you’re preparing yourself,” he said.
“The screens were up around him and he was covered in a sheet. I just got down beside him and stroked his neck and thanked him for everything he’d done for us. I said sorry. It was so upsetting.
“The only blessing in the whole thing was that he wouldn’t have known anything about it. He died straight away. I’ve read that he was euthanised, but he wasn’t. He was such a lovely horse. Everybody is still raw. It’s distressing.”
Thomson gathered his staff together on Monday morning. “We all had a chat. They love these horses. They feed them, they muck out after them, they groom them, they’re very close to them.
“We had an empty horsebox coming back into the yard and it was extremely sad. We put another horse into Hill Sixteen’s stable because we didn’t want the feeling of emptiness. He was a special horse to everyone here.”
Thomson has blasted the protestors, accusing them of making Hill Sixteen hyper and, in part, contributing to his death.
“I think I said they [the protestors] had blood on their hands, which might be a bit strong, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the chaos contributed to his death. In my heart of hearts, I believe that.”