The decision of trainer David Pipe and owner’s Middleham Park Racing to keep Junior under wraps this season to preserve his handicap mark appears to have paid off. Grand National handicapper Phil Smith has given him 11st 2lb to carry.
That guarantees Junior will get a run in the race for which he failed to get in the field last year. Bookmakers reacted by reducing his price from 14/1 this morning to a best of 10/1 with Boylesports and Coral. Junior shares the favourite’s position in the market with Richard Lee's Le Beau Bai, who has been given 10st 3lb.
Although Junior is entered for Saturday's Betfred Grand National Trial, for which he is an 8/1 joint favourite with the sponsors he's by no means certain to run on Saturday. Indeed he may not even jump another fence in public before the National.
Tim Palin, speaking on behalf of Middleham Park Racing said, "We're not going to run him for the sake of running. If we did get some good or good to soft ground this weekend he could run and then go to the Festival as there is four weeks between Cheltenham and Aintree. But I’ve got my eye on a 0-145 handicap hurdle over 3 miles at Doncaster on March 3 and that would be my preferred race. Or a bumper for jumpers if they manage to put some more on. The good ground at Doncaster would suit him and he'd probably be the best horse in the race in a jumpers’ bumper."
A run at Cheltenham, where Junior was an easy Kim Muir Chase winner last year, seems unlikely though, Palin said. "If I'm calling it I'd probably go to Doncaster then Aintree. It is a balancing act and we're not going to do anything that is going to hinder him for Aintree – he has got everything that you need for the race, it's just a case of keeping him in one piece, keeping his confidence up and sending him there with as good a chance as any."
When the Grand National weights were published at 11 o'clock this morning Lexus Chase winner Synchronised was given top weight of 11st 10lb for the race, with last year's winner, the Donald McCain trained Ballabriggs next in line on 11st 9lb. McCain also has Weird Al who is on 11st 8lb along with Neil Mulholland's recent Argento Chase winner Midnight Chase.
Paul Nicholls expressed himself happy with the burdens allocated to his two entries, Neptune Collonges (11st 6lb) and Niche Market (10st 4lb). "Both have got weights I half expected. Neptune is too consistent for his own good and he would seem to have plenty to me, but he did run well in the Scottish National with a big weight so he's used to it. Niche Market will get in and would appear to have a lovely weight."
In contrast, Dessie Hughes, who has five horses entered, was very unhappy with the 11st 3lb that Black Apalachi has been shouldered with. "I think Black Apalachi's weight is a disgrace. He hasn't run in almost two years, he's a 13 year old now and they have dropped him a pound. He's been round Aintree four times and has been unlucky a couple of times, but he can't be as good a horse as he was two years ago. The owners will be very disappointed and we'll have to have a think about whether we run him now."