Cloth Cap leads the way, with all set fair for National spectacular

The world’s greatest steeplechase will take place in front of empty grandstands this afternoon for the first and hopefully only time in its history.

The Randox Grand National is the natural highlight of the final day of Aintree’s three-day spring meeting – a card which also plays host to three Grade One contests, but was lost last year to the coronavirus pandemic.

And even though only participants, owners and essential personnel will be on track, the one race of the year that really captures the imagination of the wider public is back.

Before the main event, potential stars of the future will do battle in the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, while Arkle Chase winner Shishkin undoubtedly takes centre stage in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase.

The Ryanair Stayers Hurdle also promises to be a fascinating affair, with familiar rivals Paisley Park and Thyme Hill meeting again after their Cheltenham Festival clash was scuppered by a setback for the latter.

Then it is the big one, as the afternoon climaxes with the National, where Cloth Cap heads a field of 40 for the famed Aintree marathon and is set to head to the famous start as one of the shortest-priced National runners ever.

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Can Ballyadam bounce back?

Ballyadam and Jack Kennedy clear the last on the way to winning at Down Royal
Ballyadam and Jack Kennedy clear the last on the way to winning at Down Royal (Niall Carson/PA)

Ballyadam was well-beaten when taking on Appreciate It in the opening race of the Cheltenham Festival, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, but his nemesis is not in the picture this time as he lines up in the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle. My Drogo, the mount of title-chasing jockey Harry Skelton, seems to be his chief rival, but Ronan McNally’s Dreal Deal is on a steep upward trajectory that is yet to reach a plateau.

Shishkin set to shine

Shishkin was a rare British highlight at this year's Cheltenham Festival
Shishkin was a rare British highlight at this year’s Cheltenham Festival (David Davies/PA)

Shishkin was unchallenged when taking the Arkle at Cheltenham, happily seeing off the likes of Allmankind and Eldorado Allen. Neither will oppose him in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase, with Philip Hobbs’ Gumball looking to be his most worthy rival out of the small field of five contenders. The race seems to be his for the taking.

Paisley and Thyme meet again

Aidan Coleman riding Paisley Park (right, spotted cap) to victory in the Long Walk Hurdle from Thyme Hill
Aidan Coleman riding Paisley Park (right, spotted cap) to victory in the Long Walk Hurdle from Thyme Hill (left, white cap) (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Thyme Hill was ruled out of the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham due to a minor muscle strain, but he is back in the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle. He will cross paths with his old foe Paisley Park, who was third in the Cheltenham contest behind Flooring Porter and Sire Du Berlais. The two have met twice before this season, with Thyme Hill coming out on top in Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle before Paisley Park exacted his revenge in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot. Also in the mix is Dan Skelton’s Roksana, who was third behind the big two at Ascot.

Can Cloth Cap be topped?

Cloth Cap and Tom Scudamore
Cloth Cap and Tom Scudamore (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Jonjo O’Neill’s Cloth Cap is the red-hot favourite for National glory, but 39 other runners, 30 fences and four and a quarter miles stand in his way. Burrows Saint, Discorama, Any Second Now and Minella Times – the mount of Rachael Blackmore – are bidding to continue the Irish dominance witnessed at the Festival, while Welsh hopes are represented by Potters Corner and the English attack is bolstered by Tom Lacey’s out-and-out stayer Kimberlite Candy.

Bookmakers poised for National betting bonanza

Bookmakers expect online turnover on the Randox Grand National to top £100million following its one-year hiatus.

While a virtual race was held 12 months ago – one that proved an extremely popular diversion for many who were experiencing lockdown for the first time – there is nothing like the real thing.

“Although betting shops are still closed, such is the popularity of the Grand National, we are still expecting online turnover across the UK to top £100m, as the nation welcomes back the great race after its absence in 2020,” said Coral’s David Stevens.

“Last year we had to make do with a virtual Grand National, but even that was the most watched televised racing event of the year, and the most bet on, confirming the appeal of this famous sporting contest.”

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This year’s race sees Cloth Cap head the betting at a prohibitive price following two imperious wins this season – but that does not necessarily mean bad news for the bookies. Especially as support behind another runner has the potential to snowball.

“While Cloth Cap is certain to start favourite after impressive wins in his last two races, we saw when Tiger Roll won his second National as 4-1 market leader two years ago that, such is the unique nature of the betting on this race, a winning favourite isn’t always bad news for us,” said Stevens.

“That’s because the public can latch on to any runner in great numbers, which soon builds up our liabilities, even on some less obvious contenders. We’re also braced for a significant gamble on Minella Times, the mount of Rachael Blackmore, who made history when becoming the first female rider to be crowned top jockey at last month’s Cheltenham Festival.

“The odds on her big-race mount have already tumbled to 10-1 from 20-1, and while no female rider has ever won the National, Rachael certainly has what it takes to end that run.

“We avoided a multi-million pound hammering when Katie Walsh finished third on hot favourite Seabass eight years ago, but victory for Minella Times on Saturday would spark the biggest ever payout on a female rider in racing history.”

Ladbrokes have reported money for another female jockey, Tabitha Worsley, who rides Sub Lieutenant for her mother, Georgie Howell. Having been 100-1 he is as low as 40s now.

“After Rachael Blackmore claimed top jockey honours at Cheltenham, punters are betting on more history being made in the Grand National,” said Jon Lees of Ladbrokes.

Rachael Blackmore was the star at Cheltenham and will be popular on Saturday
Rachael Blackmore was the star at Cheltenham and will be popular on Saturday (David Davies/Jockey Club)

“Not only is Rachael a popular choice to become the first female jockey to win the race, but the less well known Tabitha Worsley has also found favour, with her mount Sub Lieutenant, who is trained by the rider’s mother, also well backed. Tabitha was featured on BBC bulletins this morning and punters have clearly fallen for her bid’s fairytale charm.”

Betfred expect money for two other outsiders – along with Cloth Cap and Minella Times.

Spokesman Matt Hulmes said: “When you think of the Grand National, you can usually expect the unexpected, but all the talk has been of one horse who looks tailor made for Aintree.

“Punters were taking the 5-1 about Tiger Roll two years ago and I expect Cloth Cap will be the most popular selection.

“I can see the money continuing to arrive for Minella Times after Rachael Blackmore was plastered all over the papers after Cheltenham. The horse was 14-1 earlier in the week and is now into single figures. Discorama and Kimberlite Candy are names that could strike a chord with the public.”

Jonjo O’Neill relishing National buzz with Cloth Cap

Jonjo O’Neill has achieved almost everything in racing, but there is still one race above all others that gives him a buzz – the Randox Grand National.

O’Neill famously won the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup on Dawn Run, trained a Gold Cup winner in Synchronised and provided Sir Anthony McCoy with a previously elusive National win with Don’t Push It.

It can therefore be said the hugely popular trainer has been there and done that – as well as fighting and beating cancer – but the thrill of preparing a favourite for the most famous race of them all still gets his juices flowing.

“We’ve got everything crossed now,” said O’Neill.

“He’s basically done everything right this year – and it’s just a case of whether he can carry on doing that, I suppose. We obviously hope he can.”

Cloth Cap always looked like a stereotypical National horse – and being owned by Trevor Hemmings, who is seeking a record fourth win in the race, it has always been his aim.

Having finished fourth in the Scottish National as a novice in 2019, the 2020 event at Aintree was immediately on his radar. But even before Covid wiped the meeting out, Cloth Cap would not have been there, because he was not rated high enough.

This season, on good ground, he has gone to another level – finishing third to King George winner Frodon before winning the Ladbrokes Trophy impressively and following up at Kelso. If the handicapper had his time again he would give Cloth Cap another 14lb to carry, and his odds have continued to tumble.

Cloth Cap and Tom Scudamore in full flight at Newbury
Cloth Cap and Tom Scudamore in full flight at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)
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“He was impressive at Newbury, but I suppose you could say he was well handicapped there,” said O’Neill.

“At Kelso he looked good again, but I don’t know if those behind him ran up to their marks.

“Whether he was as good as he looked that day or not, you still had to be delighted with his performance, whatever went on behind.

“He got into such a lovely rhythm up there. Whether he can on Saturday we’ll see. Can you make all over four and a quarter miles? We’ll find out. He doesn’t have to make all, but he does like to be prominent – when he cocks that jaw it’s hard to bring him back.

“Given the forecast, the ground won’t be soft, which is a relief. They’ll put plenty of water on to make sure it’s safe. But I’m expecting it to be good to soft, good in places, something like that, and then you couldn’t have any complaints.

“All I’ve been bothered about for the last few weeks is to get him there safe and sound. He did his last piece of work on Tuesday morning and went well – and after that it’s just been a countdown. After that there’s no more I can do.”

After a relatively quiet spell for the last couple of years by his standards, which has nevertheless seen his son Jonjo jnr emerge as a rising star of the weighing room, O’Neill cannot help but let himself get a little carried away.

He said: “It’s still the magic race, it’s like no other. You could run it 100 times and get a different winner each time. Look at Fairyhouse on Monday, a 150-1 winner. The National is the National.

“It’s always a great thrill to be involved – and despite all the pressure, you’d rather be going with a 4-1 chance than one at 40-1.”

For his two impressive wins Tom Scudamore has been on board, and connections have stuck with him.

“I was just in the right place at the right time,” said Scudamore.

“Richie (McLernon) usually rode him, but had to ride something else in the Ladbrokes Trophy. I was going to be at Newbury and could do the weight.

“Newbury was a great thrill. It meant a lot to me and it looked a great spare to pick up. It’s actually turned into a great ride to get.

“He’s had a fantastic season so far – so let’s hope he can continue in that vein.

“You can’t allow yourself to think about winning. I won’t be thinking that until we’ve crossed the line – you’ve got to go and get it done, there’s no point thinking about it.

“At Kelso he jumped and galloped, and obviously he’s been over four miles at Ayr. We can keep talking about it, but he’s still got to go and do it.”

Tom Scudamore is on the cusp of National glory
Tom Scudamore is on the cusp of National glory (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

With former champion jockey Richard Johnson’s recent retirement Scudamore is now among the elder statesmen in the weighing room – but he insists there is plenty of life left in him.

“There are still a couple older than me, although they won’t like to admit it!” he said.

“Obviously Richard had the most amazing career, but there’s a few years left in me yet.

“It would be nice to win it, though, given he never managed it.”

Cloth Cap headlines Grand National confirmations

Ante-post favourite Cloth Cap is among 68 confirmations for Saturday’s Randox Grand National at Aintree.

Following several withdrawals at the five-day stage, Evan Williams’ Welsh National hero Secret Reprieve is 43rd on the list, on the same weight as Some Neck who is 42nd. The maximum field size is 40, with four reserves eligible if there any defectors from the declared runners before 1pm on Friday.

There were never any concerns of not making the cut for Jonjo O’Neill’s Cloth Cap, impressive winner of the Ladbrokes Trophy and Kelso’s Premier Chase.

He will be ridden by Tom Scudamore, who told Nick Luck’s Daily Podcast: “It looks like he’s the ideal horse and it’s the old cliche that I wouldn’t swap him for anything. If I was riding something else Cloth Cap would be the one I’d want to ride.

Tom Scudamore is relishing his Grand National chance
Tom Scudamore is relishing his Grand National chance (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

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“He stayed four miles plus in the Scottish National, he’s put up some great performances this year and he’s a stone well-in. That all points to him having a great chance, but he’s got to go and actually do it – we’ve seen it time and time again before, you can talk as much as you like, but you’ve got to go and do it.

“It’s nice to talk about it, it’s a lovely position to be in, but we’ve got to go and do it.”

While the race has seen many modifications to the famous fences in recent years, Scudamore feels if anything it takes even more winning than in the past.

“The National has always been fantastic to ride in and since the modifications it is still a test, you mustn’t underestimate the fences,” he said.

Cloth Cap has been all the rage for the National
Cloth Cap has been all the rage for the National (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“The relentlessness of the race has changed, it used to be a mad dash to Becher’s Brook but once you made your way to the Canal Turn and headed towards The Chair (you could get a breather) – it does seem more relentless now.

“That can put more of an emphasis on stamina, it’s a long time since they said it but they used to say you needed a good two-and-a-half-miler for the National. I don’t think that’s the case now.

“I’ve had some fantastic rides in it, my best is sixth on Vieux Lion Rouge. I tend to be in contention across Melling Road but not quite get home, the likes of Soll, Vieux Lion Rouge, The Package, Blowing Wind were great rides but didn’t manage to make it all the way.”

Any Second Now is well fancied for Ted Walsh
Any Second Now is well fancied for Ted Walsh (Paul Harding/PA)

There is a strong Irish contingent with the likes of Ted Walsh’s Any Second Now, Henry de Bromhead’s Minella Times, the expected mount of Rachael Blackmore, and Willie Mullins’ Burrows Saint.

Bristol De Mai is set to carry top-weight for Nigel Twiston-Davies, who is chasing a third win in the race with Yala Enki set to be the ride of Bryony Frost.

Kimberlite Candy, Takingrisks, Potters Corner, Lord Du Mesnil and Discorama were all left in.

Among those taken out were Beware The Bear, Pym, The Jam Man, Class Conti and those that had already been scratched, like Santini and Achille.

National still casts a spell on Aintree legend Champion

Bob Champion is predicting more Grand National magic, 40 years on from his heroic victory in the world’s most-watched steeplechase.

Champion became the author of one of racing’s greatest fairytales when Aldaniti triumphed in the 1981 renewal – with both the horse and his jockey having overcome great adversity on their path to Aintree fame.

For Champion that adversity was a testicular cancer diagnosis in 1979, after which it was discovered the disease was spreading throughout his body and chemotherapy was his only chance of survival.

Aldaniti’s life hung in the balance too, with two serious tendon injuries halting his racing career and causing vets to advise the gelding was euthanised rather than rehabilitated.

Nick Embiricos, the horse’s owner, knew the chestnut was essential to Champion’s recovery and would not allow it, thus leaving one of the most endearing partnerships in the sport intact when Champion was eventually given the all-clear.

Bob Champion and Aldaniti triumphing in the 1981 Grand National
Bob Champion and Aldaniti triumphing in the 1981 Grand National (PA)

What happened next captured the imagination of the world, a four-length victory in the most famous race of all – an emotive triumph over misfortune that was later immortalised both in print and on screen.

Aldaniti was a 10-1 chance for the race, his chief rival being the great hunter chaser Spartan Missile, ridden by John Thorne, but Champion retained complete faith in his horse and had not even considered the possibility of defeat.

“I was so confident of winning it was unbelievable,” he said.

“You’ll think I must be mad for saying it, but going there I thought it was a formality.

“Then I made a mistake at the first and second fences, but things started to pan out really well after that. I couldn’t see myself getting beaten and I was right for once in my life!”

Aldaniti took up the lead over the 11th obstacle and was not passed from then onwards, jumping and travelling with complete fluency, but his passage through the race varied greatly from the one envisaged by trainer Josh Gifford.

“My orders were to hold him up until the last fence,” Champion explained.

“But I had the best run down the Canal Turn that anybody could have had in the race, ever, and everything went so smoothly.

Josh Gifford (second right) with Aldaniti, Bob Champion (left) and owner Nick Embiricos at the Gifford Stables
Josh Gifford (second right) with Aldaniti, Bob Champion (left) and owner Nick Embiricos at the Gifford Stables (PA)

“I went from 29th to jumping to the front in three fences, just round the Canal Turn, which is a very short distance.

“The only reason I made up that ground is because I just had a better run round, I didn’t go any quicker, and then when I hit the front jumping Valentine’s, all I can think about is the b********* I’m getting in the stands from the guv’nor for getting there too early!

“I realised I was there and I was going at my pace, and I knew he stayed and if I could get him into a good rhythm, he’d jump for fun.

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“He took me into a fence, it wasn’t me taking him – he loved every second.”

Champion knew the agreed tactics had been abandoned at that point and was already arming himself with examples of successful front-running rides to justify his departure from the game plan to Gifford.

“All I could think about then was excuses for why I’m there in front – I went through five Red Rum Nationals in my mind,” he said.

“Also Bob Davies, when he won on Lucius, he took it up too early and still won – I had all those excuses!

Aldaniti clearing the last fence on the way to his famous victory
Aldaniti clearing the last fence on the way to his famous victory (PA)

“I remember looking to one side and seeing Rubstic, who’d won a couple of years before, and on my other side was Sebastian V, who finished second the same year, so they were another two excuses.

“Eventually when I was two out, I thought ‘I’ve got to keep hold of his head’ because his legs were like glass and keeping him sound was the most important thing.

“So I thought, ‘I’m going to keep holding him together, just hold him together and don’t lose your cool’ – and it worked.”

Despite the inevitable outpouring of admiration from all present, Champion’s mind had already turned to the next race and he therefore had little time to bask in what he and his mount had just achieved.

“When I pulled up my first thought was, ‘I did this for all the nurses and doctors in the Royal Marsden (hospital), and the patients, to give them hope’,” he said.

“That was it then, basically it was just back to business. I rode in another race an hour later, so I didn’t have time to really celebrate.”

It was only in the aftermath of victory that its impact became clear, with an influx of donations catalysing the creation of the Bob Champion Cancer Trust, a charity that has since raised more than £15million to fund further research into the two forms of the disease most liable to affect men – prostate and testicular cancer.

Champion’s philanthropy earned him a CBE in the 2021 New Year Honours, a consequence of the 1981 victory that was as unexpected as the success of the charity itself.

“I was on the right horse on the right day, which always helps,” he said.

“But I didn’t go into the race thinking ‘this is going to lead to the Bob Champion Cancer Trust’ or anything like that. I just wanted to go into the race and win it, because it had really been my ambition for all of my life.

Aldaniti meets the Queen as Champion looks on
Aldaniti meets the Queen as Champion looks on (PA)

“Everything changed after that day, really.”

The Grand National is a race that moves the public like no other, with many of the sport’s best known characters participants over the famous fences and the wide-open nature of the race appealing to seasoned punters and novice spectators alike.

“It’s racing’s cup final,” is Champion’s analogy.

“There always seems to be a story involved with it – you’ve got 40 runners, everybody in the country used to have their one bet a year on the Grand National.”

Champion cites the 1973 National as the most outstanding renewal of the race, with the future three-time winner Red Rum claiming the first of his successes from the valiant Australian chaser Crisp, who was carrying a top-weight of 12st.

“The first time I got round was the Crisp versus Red Rum National, and to me that was the greatest National ever,” he said.

“What a performance by Crisp – unbelievable from Richard Pitman – but sadly he got beaten.

“Red Rum had only 10st 5lb, nearly two stone less. It was tremendous.”

The 1973 race is often listed among the sport’s most memorable moments, creating the sort of front-page coverage that has most recently been achieved by the Cheltenham Festival success of Rachael Blackmore.

Rachael Blackmore collects the Cheltenham Festival leading jockey trophy
Rachael Blackmore collects the Cheltenham Festival leading jockey trophy (David Davies/PA)

Champion watched with great admiration as Blackmore took the leading jockey title at the Festival, and is equally impressed by Hollie Doyle’s rise to prominence on the Flat.

“Look at Rachael Blackmore – she’s an absolutely fantastic advert for racing – and Hollie Doyle,” he said.

“They’re two women that have done a fantastic job for racing, and it’s great to see them doing so well. They deserve their success.

“There are plenty of other women too, not just those two – there’s Bryony Frost as well – but they do a fantastic job.

“They’re a great advert for racing and they ride equally as well as the men.”

Champion will no doubt be cheering home whichever horse Blackmore partners in this season’s big race, but he is also confident the favourite will come to the fore.

“The favourite’s the one they’ve got to beat, the Jonjo (O’Neill) horse – Cloth Cap,” he said.

“I was really impressed with him at Kelso, and then the time before that he absolutely bolted up.

“I think he’s the one they’ve all got to beat – he jumps for fun, which is the main thing.

“You keep jumping, you win Nationals.”

Cloth Cap winning the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase under Tom Scudamore
Cloth Cap winning the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase under Tom Scudamore (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Cloth Cap’s jockey Tom Scudamore is part of a racing dynasty which has close ties with the Grand National, something Champion feels would make victory even sweeter for the family.

“What a story that would be with Tom Scudamore, because Tom’s grandfather rode the winner of the National – Michael Scudamore,” he said.

“Then his father (Peter) never won a National, but he and his partner (Lucinda Russell) trained a National winner, One For Arthur.

“Maybe it’s the Tote treble for them with Tom, which I’d love to see. It’d be a great story, with the three generations, and they are terrific people.”

Scudamore not feeling the weight of National history

Tom Scudamore feels little pressure but maintains complete respect for his forefathers as he aims to emulate their Randox Grand National success aboard Cloth Cap.

Hot favourite and extremely ‘well in’ racing off a stone lower than his current mark, the Jonjo O’Neill-trained nine-year-old staked his claim with victory in the Ladbrokes Trophy before following up with ease at Kelso.

Scudamore was in the saddle on both occasions, and he will be reunited with his mount on April 10 when the race is run behind closed doors for the first time in its history.

The jockey has ridden in the world’s most famous steeplechase 18 times already – but victory has evaded him so far, with a seventh-placed finish aboard Vieux Lion Rogue in 2017 his best result to date.

Scudamore is a rider uniquely placed to understand the significance of it all, though, owing to the exploits of both his father and grandfather in the National.

Cloth Cap and Tom Scudamore clear the last to win the Ladbrokes Trophy
Cloth Cap and Tom Scudamore clear the last to win the Ladbrokes Trophy (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

His grandfather Michael was a winner in 1959 when steering Oxo to victory, and still holds the record for the most consecutive National rides – having lined up at Aintree every season for 16 years.

That victory has become something of a legend in the Scudamore household, with Tom well versed on the varying fortunes of his family over the famed National fences.

“Grandad won it in 1959, and it’s something the whole family is very proud of,” he said.

“Throughout all that myself and my dad have achieved, wherever we went he was always ‘Michael Scudamore – who won the Grand National’.

“We’d talk about it over Sunday lunches when I was a kid, we’d devote hours to talking about Grand Nationals.

“Grandad rode in 16 consecutive races, which I still think is a record; dad rode in it 13 or 14 times.

“I listened to the story of every single ride. I could tell you about every single ride dad had in it, and every single ride grandad had in it, and their characteristics and how they got on – it was an enormous part of my childhood.”

Michael’s son, Tom’s father Peter, was never able to win the big race throughout an illustrious career which saw him crowned champion jockey eight times and enjoy success in numerous other coveted contests.

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Tom Scudamore's grandfather, Michael
Tom Scudamore’s grandfather, Michael (PA)

Michael and Peter then teamed up upon the latter’s retirement from the saddle and bought a bay gelding named Earth Summit, who was later sold and trained by Nigel-Twiston Davies, to whom Peter acted as assistant trainer and business partner.

After winning the Scottish and Welsh versions of the Grand National and also taking the Peter Marsh Chase, Earth Summit was an 11-length winner of the 1998 Aintree contest and provided a teenage Tom Scudamore with his first experience of what National success means.

“Growing up, dad was obviously associated with Nigel Twiston-Davies – and before that I’d go year after year and watch dad in the National, which would ultimately end up in disappointment,” he said.

“The year Earth Summit won it, I just remember that being absolute bedlam.

“That was my first realisation – I was always aware of what a great race the National was. But to go and win it, and witness everything that follows, that just absolutely blew my mind.

“I’d have been 13 or 14 at the time, and just the whole jamboree was not like anything I could have imagined, particularly after seeing all of the disappointment that we’d gone through.

“Seeing Earth Summit win it, grandad and dad having bought him and obviously played a massive part in his training, that was a fantastic memory.”

Peter then enjoyed further success in the race in 2017 when he and his partner Lucinda Russell, to whom he is assistant trainer, struck gold with 14-1 chance One For Arthur in 2017.

Earth Summit en route to victory in the 1998 Grand National
Earth Summit en route to victory in the 1998 Grand National (Rui Vieira/PA)

Despite being the next of the Scudamore dynasty to take up the mantle, Tom does not feel unduly pressured by the success of his family – nor is he troubled by the expectations which come with partnering the favourite for the race.

“The only pressure is the pressure I put on myself. I obviously want to win, but there’s lots of races I want to win,” he said.

“I don’t feel any pressure in that respect.

“I’d much rather be on the favourite than go under the radar on one of the outsiders.

“He’s the favourite for a reason, and it’s a very good reason. Hopefully he can justify that.

“It’s a lovely position to be in – it’s a great privilege.”

Cloth Cap’s owner, Trevor Hemmings, is as well acquainted with the race as the Scudamore family – having enjoyed three Grand National successes with Hedgehunter (2005), Ballabriggs (2011) and Many Clouds (2015).

Trevor Hemmings (right) celebrates after victory in the Grand National with Many Clouds
Trevor Hemmings (right) celebrates after victory in the Grand National with Many Clouds (Mike Egerton/PA)

Those three victories make Hemmings one of the most successful owners in the race, with another win set to distinguish him from the likes of Red Rum’s owner Noel Le Mare and Gigginstown House Stud – whose silks were carried to victory once by Rule The World and twice by Tiger Roll.

“Mr Hemmings is no stranger to National glory, and he (Cloth Cap) was probably bought with Aintree in mind,” added Scudamore.

“It goes without saying what a tremendous supporter of National Hunt racing he’s been.

“He deserves every success, and it would be an honour to follow in those footsteps and try to win it for him for a fourth time.”

Hemmings is an owner who has clearly always cherished the Grand National, an estimation Scudamore shares with regards to his own career accomplishments.

“It would be the pinnacle of my career up to that point,” he said.

“It’s the race I’ve always wanted to be involved with, and growing up it’s the race I’ve always wanted to win the most.

Tom Scudamore aboard Vieux Lion Rouge (left) in the 2017 Grand National
Tom Scudamore aboard Vieux Lion Rouge (left) in the 2017 Grand National (David Davies/PA)

“It doesn’t add any more pressure on, but it’s a race I’ve spent my whole career trying to win – it would be the pinnacle as far as I’m concerned.”

Although Cloth Cap will be encountering the Aintree track for the first time, Scudamore is more familiar than most with the challenges posed by the Canal Turn and Becher’s Brook, and hopes to draw on that experience as he tackles the course once more aboard a horse that would be a hugely popular winner.

“I learnt plenty off Vieux Lion Rouge, who is a real National expert and who has jumped more National fences than just about any other horse in history,” he said.

“I haven’t been in a position to really crack it yet, but I’ve had a few good rides. Hopefully, I’m due an even better one.

“There are plenty of dangers. You have got to be very respectful of Kimberlite Candy, who seems to have been campaigned with this race in mind, Ted Walsh’s horse (Any Second Now) was very impressive in Ireland the other day and there will be plenty of horses with a chance, but I’ll be focusing on Cloth Cap.

“If the handicapper could have his say again we would be 14lb higher, so that is a lovely position to be in. It is such a high quality race that you have to respect any horse that meets the criteria and gets a run.”

O’Neill savouring Cloth Cap’s National opportunity

Jonjo O’Neill concedes Cloth Cap will never have a better opportunity to win the Randox Grand National after the handicapper hit him with a 14lb rise for his easy Kelso win.

The nine-year-old, who had put up a similarly impressive display to win the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November, finds himself 26lb higher than for that success just two runs ago.

However, as the National weights have already been announced, Cloth Cap can run off his old mark of 148 rather than his new perch of 162 – which would put him on the verge of Gold Cup class.

Not surprisingly Cloth Cap is the clear 6-1 favourite for Aintree.

“He’s come out of the race grand, which is nice,” said O’Neill.

“He’s looked a better horse all year at home to be fair – it hasn’t just been the ground.

“You can argue all you like with the handicapper and say the older horses (Definitly Red and Lake View Lad) didn’t perform, Kim’s (Bailey) horse (Two For Gold) didn’t perform – but he still won by seven lengths, so you’re only kidding yourself.

“This year you’d have to love the enthusiasm he has shown. He jumps, he stays and if he keeps doing that it would be lovely.”

O’Neill has already won the National when providing Sir Anthony McCoy with a famous victory on Don’t Push It in 2010 – while Cloth Cap’s owner Trevor Hemmings has been lucky enough to see his colours carried to victory three times by Hedgehunter (2005), Ballabriggs (2011) and Many Clouds (2015).

“We’ve got to get him there first – everything needs to go 100 per cent right before we can start getting excited,” said O’Neill.

“He’ll never have the same weight again, that is for sure, so this is his opportunity.

“It’s nice to be in this position if we can get him there safe and sound.”

Scudamore keeping his cool ahead of Cloth Cap’s National mission

Tom Scudamore is determined to contain his excitement for the next five weeks after the “tremendous” performance which has given Cloth Cap a stranglehold on the Randox Grand National market.

Scudamore’s grandfather Michael was a Grand National winner on Oxo 62 years ago – but his father, eight-time champion jockey Peter, was then luckless in the Aintree showpiece throughout his career.

Scudamore himself has also yet to win the race – with a best finishing position of sixth, on perennial contender Vieux Lion Rouge in 2017 – while Cloth Cap’s owner Trevor Hemmings will be bidding for a record-breaking fourth success next month, and trainer Jonjo O’Neill has his own Aintree history, including Don’t Push It’s 2010 victory.

Cloth Cap has all of them dreaming, having followed up his Ladbrokes Trophy romp in November with an all-the-way success too in Saturday’s bet365 Premier Chase at Kelso.

His jockey is, however, doing his best to stay focused on what he can control – on April 10 in Liverpool, and through the intervening weeks too.

“It would be great,” Scudamore said, at the prospect of winning the National.

“But you’re trying not to get too carried away. There’s plenty of racing in between – a big week at Cheltenham coming up, for starters.

“I wouldn’t be one to get carried away too far with it – we’ll just get on, go and do the business as best we can.”

There was no hiding his delight, though, at Cloth Cap’s Kelso performance – triumphing by more than seven lengths over just short of three miles, and making a mockery of official ratings which suggested he should instead have finished last of five.

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“It was a tremendous prep run – a nice race in its own right, and he beat some very good horses,” Scudamore added.

“Obviously we had a bit to find at the weights. But he did it very well, and at this stage he’s a worthy favourite (for the National).”

Cloth Cap has demonstrated significant improvement since three new factors coincided at Newbury – where Scudamore rode him for the first time, on his preferred good ground, with a switch to front-running tactics.

“The handicapper’s going to have his say on Tuesday, and if the weights were done again we’d be carrying a lot more,” Scudamore said, of a horse nestling on 10st 5lb next month.

“We’ll know more on Tuesday. But obviously it’s a lovely position to be in – we’re going to be ahead of the handicapper.

“But there’s still a fair time to go. A lot can change – we’re still five, six weeks away.”

He is mindful that others could yet prove they too are well-handicapped.

Santini is among those who could be taking on Cloth Cap at Aintree
Santini is among those who could be taking on Cloth Cap at Aintree (Julian Herbert/PA)

“Who knows, if Santini wins the Gold Cup by half the track, then he might be better in than us!” Scudamore added.

“But from Cloth Cap’s point of view, he can’t have done any more.”

He acknowledges that conditions will be important, but was pleased with how the nine-year-old adapted to comparative ease in the ground this weekend.

“It was good ground at Newbury,” said Scudamore.

“(But) the ground was soft enough yesterday, quite tacky, and he’s handled that fine.

“Obviously, you’d want nice ground for the National – but we’re not in control of those things.

“Jonjo and everybody at Jackdaws (Castle) had him in fine fettle, and they know what it takes.”

Jonjo O’Neill is already a Grand National-winning trainer
Jonjo O’Neill is already a Grand National-winning trainer (David Davies/PA)

He is playing down his own contribution so far too – and credits O’Neill with the decision to ride the 2019 Scottish Grand National third prominently for the first time.

“That was down to Jonjo really,” said Scudamore.

“He just said ‘he jumps and he stays’. Both times he’s been able to go a gallop, and he can maintain it – he’s obviously got form over four miles, from the Scottish National.

“Jonjo thinks the horse has matured an awful lot in the last year.

“I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time (to pick up the ride with Richie McLernon unavailable at Newbury), and it’s worked out, so I’m very grateful to connections for that.

“Everyone at Jackdaws has done all the hard work.”

National favourite Cloth Cap cruises to Kelso success

Cloth Cap cemented his place as ante-post favourite for the Randox Grand National with a dominant front-running display in the bet365 Premier Chase at Kelso.

Making his first appearance since landing the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November, Jonjo O’Neill’s charge was sent off at 100-30 in the hands of Tom Scudamore – and could hardly have been more impressive.

Sent straight to the lead, Cloth Cap jumped accurately throughout and had his four rivals on the stretch before turning for home.

A bold leap at the final obstacle sealed his seven-and-a-half-length success over Aso, prompting his odds to tumble for next month’s Aintree spectacular.

“I was very pleased with him. He travelled away nicely and jumped well,” O’Neill told Racing TV.

“He always jumps a little bit left, that’s his make-up. So long as he comes home safe and sound now, we’ll be happy.

“He’s just in great old form at home – he’s a happy horse. He’s a bit of an old character, but he’s a year older and a bit stronger and things are going right for him at the moment. Fingers crossed it will stay that way for a bit longer.

“He jumps well and he stays well, which are two good things to have when you’re going for a National.

“The plan was to go and win the National last year. We don’t mind if it’s a year late!”

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Owner Trevor Hemmings has already won the Grand National three times
Owner Trevor Hemmings has already won the Grand National three times (David Davies/PA)

O’Neill, who famously provided Sir Anthony McCoy with an elusive Grand National success through Don’t Push It in 2010, is hoping Cloth Cap can secure owner Trevor Hemmings a fourth, following the previous triumphs of Hedgehunter (2005), Ballabriggs (2011) and Many Clouds (2015).

He added: “It would be special to win the National for him (Hemmings). He’s just told me off, because the horse will be too short a price now and he won’t be able to back him!”

An appearance at Aintree is also on the agenda for My Drogo after extending his unbeaten record over obstacles to three with a facile success in the bet365 Premier Novices’ Hurdle.

Trained by Dan Skelton and ridden by his brother Harry, the six-year-old was the 2-1 favourite to complete his hat-trick following previous wins in a maiden hurdle at Newbury and a Grade Two Ascot.

Carrying a penalty for that latest win, My Drogo was forced to concede weight all round in his bid to double his Grade Two tally.

However, he proved more than up the task, pulling clear in the straight for a nine-and-a-half-length victory over Do Your Job.

Dan Skelton, making his first visit to Kelso, said of My Drogo: “He’s very good and every question you ask of him he answers.

“He’s got all the ingredients. He’s tough and jumps nicely and has that pace I think all good horses need.

“I’m really impressed with how his season has progressed. He’s a very genuine horse and always a willing partner.

“We’ll step up in grade now and go to Aintree, hopefully. Next year he’s going chasing, so he’s got it all mapped out ahead of him.”

The Shunter (right) won the Morebattle Hurdle
The Shunter (right) won the Morebattle Hurdle (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Irish raider The Shunter won the most valuable race of the afternoon, the bet365 Morebattle Hurdle.

The Emmet Mullins-trained gelding won the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham in November, before reverting to fences to finish third in a handicap chase at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival.

Switching back to the the smaller obstacles for this £75,000 contest, The Shunter dug deep in the hands of Alain Cawley to see off Night Edition and Faivoir in a driving finish.

Mullins was at Navan, where he completed an across-the-card double with Noble Yeats in a maiden hurdle.

He said of The Shunter’s victory: “That was marvellous. It’s brilliant for Paul (Byrne, owner) as he’s put plenty of money into it and he has two nice horses there to look forward to.

“They went a ferocious gallop at Kelso and the pace collapsed halfway through. It turned into a war of attrition and ‘Squeaky’ (Cawley) was good and was strong on him.

“Anything we’ve asked the horse to do, he keeps coming up trumps for us. He’s a real star.

“Fingers crossed he’ll go to Cheltenham now. There is a huge bonus and it’s great to have a chance at it.

“I’d say we’ll have to take our chance once the horse is OK. He had a tough race there today, we’ll give him every chance to get over it and try to find one of the races in Cheltenham for him.

“He’s in plenty of them and we’ll keep all options open.”

Premier prep for Grand National favourite Cloth Cap

Randox Grand National favourite Cloth Cap warms up for next month’s Aintree spectacular in the bet365 Premier Chase at Kelso on Saturday.

A small but select field of six runners line up for the £45,000 contest, with the Jonjo O’Neill-trained Cloth Cap making his first competitive appearance since landing the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November.

The nine-year-old is the 14-1 market leader to provide owner Trevor Hemmings with a fourth Grand National success on April 10, following the previous triumphs of Hedgehunter (2005), Ballabriggs (2011) and Many Clouds (2015).

O’Neill said: “He’s in grand form and it looks like the ground is drying out for him.

“He’s not chucked in the race – he’s not well-in (at the weights). We’re going there for the ground more than anything else.

“He has his little issues, but he’s fine at the minute and everything is going according to plan.”

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Tom Scudamore rides Cloth Cap
Tom Scudamore rides Cloth Cap (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Tom Scudamore, who steered Cloth Cap to big-race success at Newbury, is once again on board with a view to keeping the ride at Aintree.

“I hope that’s what will happen, as long as everything goes according to plan,” O’Neill added.

“I don’t want to ride him, anyway. I don’t think I’d do the weight, so he (Scudamore) won’t have a lot of competition!

“We’ve only got one plan in mind, which we’ve had for the last two years.”

The Hemmings colours are also set to be carried this weekend and at Aintree by Nick Alexander’s stable star Lake View Lad.

Lake View Lad winning the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree
Lake View Lad winning the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree (Tim Goode/PA)

The grey beat Cheltenham Gold Cup contenders Santini and Native River when landing the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree in December, but finished a long way behind that pair in the rescheduled Cotswold Chase at Sandown on his latest outing.

“It’s a proper race and I’m pleased it’s a really good race. Kelso have put on some great prize-money and it looks like the number one meeting on the day,” said Alexander.

“It’s a slight step down in grade for Lake View Lad – this is more his grade than the Cotswolds Chase was, so hopefully he can run well.

“This has always been the plan. It’s a nice prize and a nice race.

“He’s not particularly well in at the weights – if everyone performs to their mark he’s going to be third or fourth, but hopefully he’ll run very well before heading back to Aintree.”

Definitly Red is bidding for back-to-back wins in the Premier Chase
Definitly Red is bidding for back-to-back wins in the Premier Chase (Julian Herbert/PA)

Last year’s winner Definitly Red is back to defend his crown for Brian Ellison, but does have something to prove, after finishing well-beaten in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby before falling in the Rehearsal at Newcastle.

Ellison said: “This his prep run for the National, hopefully.

“Everything has been fine since the Rehearsal. He went to Wetherby last week for a hack round and we’ve just been waiting for this race.

“He’s in good fettle.”

Two For Gold (Kim Bailey), Aso (Venetia Williams) and Cool Mix (Iain Jardine) complete the sextet.

O’Neill sights set on Grand National outing for Cloth Cap

Jonjo O’Neill plans to give Ladbrokes Trophy winner Cloth Cap one run ahead of an outing in the Randox Health Grand National.

The Jackdaws Castle handler will work back from the Aintree marathon on April 10, for which the nine-year-old is a general 20-1 chance.

Cloth Cap entered the Grand National picture when ending a two-year drought with an impressive front-running success in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November.

O’Neill said: “The plan remains to go for the Grand National and hopefully we can get a race into him before then.

“He has been put up 11lb, but he won well in the Ladbrokes Trophy and jumped great. He only had 10st that day and everything was right for him.

“Trevor (Hemmings, owner) is keen to go for the National as it was the plan last year, but it obviously didn’t happen.”

O’Neill has no doubts about Cloth Cap, who finished third in the 2019 Scottish National, getting the extended four-and-a-quarter-mile trip, although he fears the ground may go against his new stable star.

He said: “He is a National horse as we know he stays and he jumps well normally, so those boxes are ticked.

“I wouldn’t be worried about him not staying, but the ground is very important to him.

“The only problem with the Grand National is that he might not get the ground as quick as it was in the Ladbrokes Trophy.”

Scudamore takes straightforward path to third Trophy victory

Keeping things simple can often be the best route to glory, as Tom Scudamore demonstrated with a fine front-running ride aboard Cloth Cap to secure a record-equalling third Ladbrokes Trophy success at Newbury.

Rarely will victory in one of jump racing’s flagship contests have much smoother than it was for the 38-year-old aboard Jonjo O’Neill’s charge.

While it is the final result that counts, getting a good start can often be overlooked – a factor Scudamore believes was key to the pair’s triumph.

Scudamore said: “I just wanted to get a good start. It’s the first time he has really had the ground since he was placed in the Scottish National.

“I just thought the important bit would be in the first four or five fences, as I didn’t want to get too far back and as I’d never get at them.

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“When he winged the first ditch, the second fence, I was thinking I could be in for quite a thrill here, and so it turned out. It was great, very straightforward.”

Getting down to 10st can be difficult for some jockeys, not for Scudamore though, who barely had to break out of his regular routine in order to take up, what would turn out to be, a rare winning ride for O’Neill.

He added: “Siruh Du Lac was taken out at the entry stage, I had ridden for Jonjo a little bit in the past and a bit more for Mr Hemmings and they wanted someone that could commit and do 10st.

“Richie (McLernon) was claimed for Regal Encore and Jonjo (O’Neill junior), with it being 10st, wouldn’t be able to do the weight, so it worked out quite nicely.

“I’m always quite fit and I wouldn’t be letting my weight get away with me, so it wouldn’t be a problem. I was still able to have something last night and just sit in a hot bath for half an hour this morning, but nothing too bad.”

Having eclipsed his father Peter’s tally of two wins in the race, Scudamore was delighted to be able to give O’Neill, who failed to win the three-and-a-quarter-mile prize as a rider, his first victory in the Grade Three as a trainer.

He added: “Jonjo is just about the best trainer of staying chasers there is. He has won the Grand National, Irish Grand National and Gold Cup, he beat me (as a trainer) in the Gold Cup and I forgive him now!

“I’ve won it for the Pipes, Tizzards and Jonjo and that is quite an impressive roll of trainers to win a big race for, so I’m very grateful and Dad and Jonjo go back a long way.

“He has always been very kind to me, so I’m pleased I’m able to reward his faith with a nice winner.”

The stands may have been sparsely populated with only a small number of owners, trainers and racecourse staff dotted about, but it failed to take the gloss off the victory for Scudamore.

He added: “It is sad there are not many people here, but from my point of view, you have to concentrate on the job in hand.

“Yes it would be nice for other people to be here and great for the racecourse, but in the circumstances racing has done a great job.

“Growing up, I always felt it was one of the classic races. To come out and win this again is a great thrill, as it is one of the best races on probably the best course to ride.”

Cloth Cap makes all for Ladbrokes Trophy triumph

Cloth Cap ran the opposition into the ground with a superb all-the-way triumph in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury.

The Jonjo O’Neill-trained eight-year-old was given an ultra-positive ride by Tom Scudamore, who also made the most of carrying bottom weight in the prestigious staying handicap chase.

With Cloth Cap, carrying the familiar colours of Trevor Hemmings, putting in an impeccable round of jumping, Scudamore was always in control.

The well-fancied Vinndication was close up but he came down at the fifth-last fence.

Aye Right, who was prominent throughout, tried to lay down a bid, as did last year’s runner-up The Conditional, but Cloth Cap held all the aces.

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The 9-1 shot galloped on strongly from the last to win by 10 lengths from Aye Right (12-1). The Conditional (14-1) was a length and a half away in third place with The Hollow Ginge (50-1) fourth.

Cloth Cap was slashed to 25-1 from 66-1 with Paddy Power and Betfair for the Randox Health Grand National.

O’Neill said: “He has been in tremendous form. His run at Cheltenham when Richie (McLernon) rode him was a cracker. It was great – he jumped brilliantly, it was just brilliant.

“I said to Tom ‘he gets four miles, so the rest is down to you’ – obviously he did his home work. The ride came about through Dave Roberts his agent. We were looking for someone to do 10st and I couldn’t do it, so I thought Tom was the next best thing!

“I was second on Tamalin one year, behind a horse (Zeta’s Son) ridden by Ian Watkinson and trained by Peter Bailey. Michael Buckley owned it and I can still see the colours.

“It is a great start to the season and it was brilliant. Most of the team are running well.

“It is great to win it for anybody. For Trevor it is great, as he loves long-distance chasers and we have been trying to get him to run in the National really, so he is probably on a mark where he will probably get in.

“He needs good ground and that is important to him really. If he gets his ground in the National, take the price now. I was a bit worried about the ground as the lads were saying it is a bit slower today as he wants it good. It was good enough and that is the main thing.”

Graham said: “We are just so chuffed. All week I’ve been thinking ‘are we above ourselves taking on all these fantastic trainers and fantastic southern horses’.

Aye Right (right) delighted his trainer Harriet Graham
Aye Right (right) delighted his trainer Harriet Graham (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“I’ve always thought so much of him and Callum (Bewley) and him have got on really well. We’ve stayed loyal to our jockey and the owners stayed loyal to him and he did a fantastic job.

“The horse jumped incredibly and galloped and we were brave enough to take it to them – it was a super job.

“Over cups of coffee at the kitchen table, we’ve often thought of the Scottish National and we had been going to go to that meeting last season for a supporting chase. That is on the radar, but it is a long way away. I think we have a really nice horse.”