MELISSA JONES SAYS: Cappa is one to watch

South Wales Argus: Cappa Bleu with his groom Martine Gunstone Cappa Bleu with his groom Martine Gunstone

THE exploits of those living in villages rarely slip under the radar.

Wales is proud of its culture, its people and an all-conquering rugby team.

And a sleepy Welsh village is now waking up to the talent on its doorstep.

The name of Llanfarcan’s racehorse trainer is the name on everybody’s lips.

“Evan Williams – he has done tremendously well,” an elderly resident told me with a smile.

“What’s he running in the National this year?”

No-one has needed to ask for the past three years, as stable stalwart State of Play has taken aim and shown his rivals his firepower.

Getting a horse just to line-up in the world’s famous race is a job in itself, let alone to finish in the first four for three consecutive years – a mission completed by State of Play.

“It’s almost impossible to do,” said Williams.

“In the history of the sport a very, very small handful of horses have done what he has.”

Retirement was mooted following State of Play’s heroics in 2011, but the veteran seems to know what the month of April brings.

Like a doctor in disguise, Williams has had to make sure his pride and joy’s condition is spot-on as next Saturday’s race approaches.

“State of Play’s a particularly difficult horse to train, he takes up an awful lot of your time, not just physically but mentally.

“He has taken over my life,” Williams said.

His love for the relatively small horse is plain to see as he pats him of the neck.

The 12-year-old has taken Williams, who only started training in the 2003/4 season, to the biggest courses and cemented his position as one of Britain’s up and coming trainers, so everything has to be 110% before he is allowed to line-up at Aintree once again.

“Right up until the start you would never know with him. He’s getting on in age, he’s been round the Grand National three times and like an old boxer you are not the same after you have had a few world championship fights,” he said.

While the tremendous State of Play will be hoping to knockout most of his opposition, the Vale of Glamorgan trainer has two others waiting parade-ring side for the challenge.

Deep Purple and Cappa Bleu spearhead a three-pronged assault Williams is planning on this year’s race.

One time Gold Cup prospect Cappa Bleu is seen by many to have the best chance of the three, and is the one punters are backing.

“The National has been at the back of my mind since he came third in the Welsh version,” Williams said.

“He ran very well there and put in a very nice run at Ascot last time.

“He came to win the race an then blew up- he needed the run.”

Williams opts not to school horses over a National style fence at home like many trainers do in the build up to the prestigious contest.

Instead he teaches them to think about their jumping over a variety of other obstacles.

Howeve r, even the most talented of horses have been known to dislike Aintree- but Williams is not phased.

“I am confident as I can be the race will suit Cappa, they will go a good gallop. I don’t know whether he will stay the trip (4miles 4furlongs) but he looked like he got three miles five furlongs very, very well in heavy ground at Chepstow.”

Deep Purple won the London Marathon at Sandown earlier in this season, over that same distance his stablemate did so well at.

He too, has been a flagbearer for the Welsh stable over the years.

Williams is keen to stress the three challengers are three totally different horses, on looks, condition, and like three pupils at the same school, have very different personalities.

Deep Purple would be less inconvenienced by faster ground, Williams said, while the other two would prefer rain.

“To have three with a chance in the great race, we are blessed really,” he said.

“The thought of winning the race, although it seems stupid, has never really crossed my mind. I always go there thinking they could fall at the first fence.

“The fact we have had a horse cement himself as an Aintree legend, well I think that’s all the luck I’m going to get.”

Cappa Bleu has a similar profile to last year’s winner Ballabriggs in that both have won strongly. both have run Cheltenham and are lightly raced.

A blend of speed and endless stamina are traits exhibited by many a National winner, and Williams notes the ten-year-old also has that touch of class which gives him the X factor.

“The horse that turns up at Aintree will be a lot better horse than at Ascot and Chepstow,” he warned.

“But just to get there and compete is an achievement in itself.”

With the Grand National just seven days away, Williams admits he will be feeling the pressure come race time, as millions of pairs of eyes around the world are fixed on the televised coverage.

“I get very, very nervous in the hour before the race. When they go down to the start you get some relief, as you have done all you can,” said Williams.

Likely to be nervous through all of it though is Cappa Bleu’s beloved groom, Martine Gunstone, 31, who shed a tear or two when he won on his first run this season following a long lay-off.

“He’s the only man in my life,” she said affectionately.

“Everyone thinks I spoil him.”

On her way to work, Ms Gunstone makes sure she keeps Cappa happy by visiting the greengrocers.

“I have all the others here laughing because I always walk in with a bag of apples.

“Cappa loves his fruit- I hide them in his hay for him to find.”

The pair have built up an endearing friendship ever since Ms Gunstone joined Williams’ stable.

“I went away for four days on holiday and he whinnied when he saw me again,” she said.

It may not be obvious on the racecourse, but the young groom reveals the 10-year-old has a few wayward tendencies.

“He doesn’t like some people and he doesn’t like men. He also has to have a daily roll in the sand or he will sulk,” she laughed.

Standing in his box, Cappa shows his disapproval when Miss Gunstone brushes his body.

His ears go flat back and he starts nibbling the side of his stable.

But win, lose or draw, the grand looking horse could not be loved any more.

“He has taken me to some of the biggest racecourses," she said proudly.

“On the morning I’m going to spend time grooming him, making sure he looks his best and I will talk and sing to him in his stable to keep him calm.

“The National could go either way with him- he’ll either love it or hate it and we’ll soon know!” she added.

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