Yes, it can only be Crabbie’s Grand National Day. Saturday 11th April, 4.15 pm. Aintree Racecourse, Liverpool. Forty horses. Thirty unique fences. Four miles, three-and-a-half furlongs. Prize money of £1 milllion. Ten minutes of sheer adrenaline rush.
Few sporting events in the world have amassed a backlog of folklore as compelling as the National. Tales of high drama, heart-wrenching emotion and wonderful chaos enrich the race’s 176-year history.
Tales such as the one in 1956 when Devon Loch, owned by the Queen Mother and ridden by Dick Francis, inexplicably collapsed on his belly in sight of the winning post.
The one in 1967 when a mass pile-up paved the way for 100/1 shot Foinavon to romp home alone.
The troubled years of the 1970s when a dilapidated Aintree belonged to the legendary Red Rum, winner three times, runner-up twice, saviour of the great race.
The film-star tale of 1981 when jockey Bob Champion recovered from cancer to win on former invalid Aldaniti.
The landmark of 1983 when Jenny Pitman became the first woman trainer to win the race, courtesy of Corbiere. And then, ten years later, when Pitman ‘won’ it again with Esha Ness, only for the race to be voided after a false-start fiasco.
The tale of 1997 when the course had to be evacuated because of a bomb scare and the race run 48 hours later on a Monday, won by Lord Gyllene.
The successful raids from Ireland between 1999 and 2007 of Bobbyjo, Papillon, Monty’s Pass, Hedgehunter, Numbersixvalverde and Silver Birch.
And of course, the story of 2010 when Tony McCoy finally ended his long pursuit of National glory aboard Don’t Push It.
McCoy is the man all eyes will be focused on again this year. It’s his last National, and the stuff of fairytales is that he will ride into the sunset of retirement on the winner.
His mount, SHUTTHEFRONTDOOR, has a big chance. Like Don’t Push It, he’s trained by Jonjo O’Neill and owned by JP McManus. And such will be the irresistible force of nationwide willpower in the betting market, he will go off a short-priced favourite.
Trends experts will tell you his chances are burdened by the statistic that only three horses as young as eight have won the National, since Red Rum in 1973. But after a preparatory workout at one of our local tracks, Southwell, a couple of weeks ago, AP and Jonjo are full of confidence.
Shutthefrontdoor heads a typically competitive field for Saturday’s renewal. Gone are the days when the race could be narrowed down to nine or ten contenders with a realistic chance. Finding the winner now is as difficult as ever.
Mind you, within racing circles, finding the winner has almost become secondary to ensuring that all 40 horses return home safe and sound. Severe but sincere steps have been taken to modify the fences and reduce the risk of accidents to acceptable, modern-day levels.
It’s a sanitisation process that has made the National less of an endurance test. But the familiar attributes of jumping and stamina are still essential requirements, plus an ability to quickly settle into a sensible rhythm and lay up with a gallop that is invariably strong.
The weights are topped by last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, LORD WINDERMERE, and this season’s Hennessy Gold Cup winner, MANY CLOUDS.
Seven of the first eight home in last year’s Aintree spectacular are back for more, including the winner PINEAU DE RE.
Two impressive winners from last month’s Cheltenham Festival, THE DRUIDS NEPHEW and CAUSE OF CAUSES, are also among the leading fancies.
And while big-gun jockeys such as Ruby Walsh (BALLYCASEY) and Richard Johnson (BALTHAZAR KING) line up alongside McCoy, the weighing room will also house the hopes of Nina Carberry (FIRST LIEUTENANT), bidding to become the first woman rider to land the National, and teenager Sean Bowen (MON PARRAIN), bidding to become the youngest rider since Bruce Hobbs in 1938 to take the spoils.
Lively outsider Mon Parrain is one of four likely representatives from the yard of champion trainer Paul Nicholls, most notably ROCKY CREEK who, I must admit, is my idea of the winner.
As an inexperienced eight-year-old still recovering from a bout of ringworm, Rocky Creek travelled and jumped beautifully in last year’s race, fading only from the second last to finish fifth.
Initially, the feeling was that his stamina ebbed away. But Nicholls insisted that a problem with his breathing was to blame. So he sent him for a wind operation and set out to train him specifically for this year’s National.
He will race off a 2lb lower mark this time, but off the same one as his prep race in February when he bolted up at Kempton. Having led from a long way out last year, he will be ridden with a shade more restraint to help him get home, and will have no issues with the drying ground.
Of course, a huge dollop of luck in running is required to win any Grand National. So, it’s always wise to back up your main selection with two or three each/way shouts.
Like Rocky Creek, I can visualise last year’s seventh, MONBEG DUDE, running another big race, while the Reveleys’ NIGHT IN MILAN is an ideal type who could give a much-needed shot in the arm for northern jumps racing.
Dismiss at your peril too the chances of SAINT ARE, who has been nursed back to his best form this season by his new trainer, Tom George. Form that included two big wins at this Aintree festival in 2011 and 2012, and valuable previous experience over the unique National fences.
Good luck to all!
MY SIX FOR AINTREE
1 ROCKY CREEK
2 NIGHT IN MILAN
3 MONBEG DUDE
4 MON PARRAIN
5 SPRING HEELED
6 SAINT ARE