By Tom Best

Watching horse racing over the festive period has been all the more enjoyable as temperatures dropped – albeit sadly at the cost to some fixtures, like Ayr, at a time when they could least afford it.

There's nothing better during the winter than getting the outside jobs done by lunch time and settling down to some serious relaxation in front of the television in the afternoon.

I suspect that non-racing enthusiasts and those who don't fit into the 'punter' category, are equally drawn in and this year there were some treats in store as Scottish interests were captured on the silver screen in winning form.

Greenlaw-based trainer and former South of Scotland rugby team member, Sandy Thomson, obviously knew that he was on to a good thing when he travelled his 13-year-old Seeyouatmidnight the long 400-mile trip to the Unibet veterans' three-mile handicap chase on January 2, at Sandown.

A win at this final of the 2020 veteran steeplechase series, worth £43,330 to the winner, brought the gelding's winnings to date to just over £200,000 – surely proof enough that his win at Sandown was based on ability, as well as an accomplished piece of training on the part of Thomson.

Seeyouatmidnight was bought as a youngster at Doncaster and began his career with a win at Hexham in December, 2013, followed by another at Musselburgh two weeks later.

He has since won several good races, including The Dipper at Cheltenham's January fixture in 2016, however he was plagued with injury and long lay-offs to the extent that his owners eventually gifted him to Sandy and his wife, Quona.

With no pressure to run him and time on their hands, his new owners played the waiting game and have run their stalwart as and when they felt he was fit to race. Obviously, the tactic paid dividends and there's no knowing when the gelding's career will end.

The huge purse of more than £70,000 on offer at the Sandown final of the veteran's chase comes at a time when prize money in the sport has taken a bit of a tumble.

Added to the fact it was scheduled for prime-time Saturday racing during the festive calendar, it speaks volumes for the high profile aimed at owners and trainers for the veteran race horse.

Prior to Sandown, Thomson was already on a winning streak when his Borders'-based Deluxe Range won at Kelso a few days earlier, form which has been maintained as the same stable's Brotherly Company won a week later, at Newcastle, on January 8.

That will certainly have been a week to remember and the likes of which helps set up smaller trainers like Thomson with better horses to train in the years ahead.

That is not to say that the Lambden yard has not already turned a few heads, with some good horses, including Yorkhill and Bellshill, former big winners with Ireland's training wizard, Willie Mullins, already showing form for their new trainer.

Seeyouatmidnight's return to form came more or less at the same time as his jockey, Ryan Mania, returned to race riding following a spell when weight issues sent him in a different equestrian direction.

Borders-born Mania came to prominence while riding Sue and Harvey Smith's horses and burst into the headlines when he partnered their 66:1 shot, Auroras Encore, to win the 2013 Grand National.

Following a career in the hunting field, as well as incorporating a job of assistant trainer at Lambden, Mania's thirst for race riding has been refreshed by a series of good wins over the past 12 months.

Married into the Thomson family, it is his daughter's Shetland pony, Bridget, which fittingly accompanies Seeyouatmidnight during his journeys to the races.

Sandy Thomson has much in common with another prominent Scottish trainer, Nick Alexander. Both their fathers were great hunting men with a passion for point-to-pointing, as well as National Hunt racing and their grandfathers were prominent business men operating on either side of the River Forth.

While Sandy remained at Lambden, Nick moved from his family’s Solsgirth Estate, near Dollar, to Kinneston, on the east side of Loch Leven, which is home to some top class horses, including well-known National Hunt owner, Trevor Hemming's attractive grey, Lake View Lad, which we saw winning at Aintree in early December.

On New Year's day we also witnessed an exciting finish at Musselburgh when the Kinneston-trained Eagle Ridge won by a nose. Coincidentally, it was Bollingerandkrug, trained by Lucinda Russell at her Arlary Stables, on the other side of the Loch, which was another of the festive winners when he recorded a victory at Kelso on December 29.

With just over 20 race horse trainers in Scotland, it comes as some relief to them that the Scottish Government confirmed that horse racing in Scotland can continue behind closed doors, despite the more severe Covid-19 restrictions in place.

With strict protocols in place and attendance restricted only to individuals essential to staging the fixtures, it leaves Scotland's five race courses in a vulnerable financial position due to the lack of public attendance income and despite the £2m support from the Scottish Government.

While horse racing reinforces the importance of equestrianism to the Scottish economy, the money involved also highlights some major difference within the equestrian sectors.

For example, the equivalent Senior Showing and Dressage's veteran's final, traditionally staged at the Olympia International Horse Show, in London, prior to Christmas, attracted a great deal of interest but little prize money.

Needless to say, the level of prize money was almost negligible and most certainly wouldn't cover the cost of entries, stabling and transport but hardly surprising as these veterans come under an umbrella organisation aimed solely at home-produced horses and ponies.

Such is the current interest in veteran classes that another 'rival' society has been formed to cater for the needs of the showing fraternity which operates under the banner of the Veteran Horse Society (VHS).

To date, it hasn't secured a prestigious venue like Olympia for its championship final, however it does cater for a wider range of horses, ponies, handlers and riders if its annual championship schedule is anything to go by.

Within the VHS classifications, there are basically three categories for equines – pre-veteran 15-17 years old; veteran 18-24 years old; and 'diamond' 25 years and over.

Needless to say, this society, like many others, has an extensive rule book which covers almost every aspect of competition, however (again like others) it fails to quantify penalties incurred within its marking system, although there is a threat that they will be deducted.

'Veterans' have become big business within the equestrian world as they not only attract the attention of an adoring and competitive ownership but they also attract the attention of the feed manufacturers which in them have identified a lucrative equine market.

For reasons best known to themselves, a substantial number of people who own a veteran, not only want to love and care for their old horse, or pony but they also want to compete with it.

Although it is something which has never appealed to me personally, I can see no harm in this provided that welfare isn't compromised in any way and, in all fairness to both societies mentioned, welfare is high on their agenda within their rules.

In many ways, it is heart-warming to think that the older horse and pony is valued so much that its owner still wants them to be involved in some kind of competitive activity.

There is no question that it will ensure a high level of care and attention, although I question who needs it most, the owner or the veteran?

In the stressful life in which we are told we all live, perhaps we need to celebrate the fact that both owner and equine are there for one another.