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How Tragedy Robbed Scottish Racing Of Two Of Its Brightest Lights

Brindisi Breeze, Campbell Gillies, and (left) Lucinda Russell
Brindisi Breeze, Campbell Gillies, and (left) Lucinda Russell

When Campbell Gillies entered the Cheltenham winner’s enclosure aboard Brindisi Breeze, having just won the 2012 edition of the Albert Bartlett, there was only one thing the precociously talented young jockey wanted - a saltire to wrap around his shoulders.

It’d been ten years since Scotland’s last winner at National Hunt racing’s showpiece meeting, and he wanted to savour it. One couldn’t be found, though, and the dizzy celebrations of connections went on without one.

Kinross handler Lucinda Russell’s stable star hadn’t tasted defeat since going down by a head in a bumper, and had made spectacular entry into hurdling, winning a maiden before taking his two prep races for Cheltenham by a combined distance of twenty-five lengths. Gillies partnered the horse for all of those rides.

Willie Mullins’ Boston Bob was the bookie’s fancy for the biggest prize in the division, however, and was chalked up as a short-priced favourite.

When the time came around, though, Brindisi shone.

He was prominent from an early stage of the race, hurdling sweetly throughout while competing for the lead. As the field rounded the turn towards the famous Cheltenham hill, he stacked it up to his rivals, going out in front and threatening to wheel away from them entirely. The market favourite was grim in his determination to get on terms and made yard after yard in chase of the leader up the climb to home.

It wasn’t enough, though, and Brindisi Breeze held on to win - to win for Scotland. Passing the winning post, Gillies stood up in his stirrups and raised a triumphant fist to the Cheltenham crowd. As he pulled up the horse that had given his nation a first festival win for a decade, that fist was still clenched around his whip.

Russell, speaking after the race, hinted at her plans for the horse’s future.

“He,” she predicted “will be a fantastic chaser next season.”

Tragically, though, he would never fulfil his near-boundless promise.

Late in the night on the Saturday, 19 May 2012, Brindisi Breeze jumped from his paddock and was hit by a lorry in a freak accident. His trainer remembers him fondly.

“We'll never forget his kind, honest nature,” she said after his untimely passing. “When a horse has achieved so much in his short life, it is deeply upsetting.”

The man who partnered the horse on its day in the sun would later suffer his own tragedy just weeks after the death of his old mate. On 25 June 2012, Campbell Gillies died in a swimming accident while on holiday in Greece with a group of friends. He was not yet 22 years old.

Russell, speaking about the young rider she’d nurtured since he left school, said: “The loss of Campbell is much bigger than racing... for everyone in the yard it was like losing a member of the family."

She reflected later on the loss of Gillies and Brindisi, and on their Cheltenham win.

“We were very proud…” she said. “The only regret was we didn’t have a Scottish flag when we came into the winner’s enclosure.”

Earlier this year, Russell sent out One For Arthur to win the Aintree Grand National. One of her staff on the track was looking on, wearing Gillie’s lucky socks.

Winning Jockey Derek Fox didn’t need to search for a saltire after he passed the post, he had one stitched into his silks.

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