First run in 1839, the Grand National is the world’s greatest steeplechase. On April 11 the latest chapter in its eventful and thrilling history will be written.
Yesterday the weights were announced and connections were able to voice their optimism or otherwise. Two Irish Gold Cup hopefuls Carlingford Lough and Lord Windermere top the list.
The latter of course won the blue riband at Cheltenham last year and the former trained by John Kiely is well-fancied for this year’s race. However, the trainer was quick to throw doubt on his horse’s participation saying: “The owner (JP McManus) and Frank Berry (his racing manager) will decide but I don't think it would be likely he'd run. The Gold Cup is his main aim and the horse is in good form."
Another Gold Cup fancy is the Oliver Sherwood trained Many Clouds. Lumbered with another mighty weight of 11-9, his owner appeared more enthusiastic: “My dream is to win the Gold Cup and the Grand National in the same year," said Hemmings."Oliver's doing things properly, but he always has the race after next in the back of his mind, and this year there are 29 days between the two, which makes it very possible."
The owner’s silks have been carried to success twice in recent times with Hedgehunter in 2005 and Ballabriggs in 2011.
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls has several towards the top of the handicap including Sam Winner, Unioniste, Rocky Creek and Rolling Aces. "I have always believed Unioniste might be a Grand National horse and Ruby Walsh said he would be my next real Aintree contender," said Nicholls. “I think Rocky Creek, who finished fifth last year, had a great run at Down Royal and you can put a line through his Hennessy run. He is in really good order and he could be a big contender. Sam Winner stays forever and he could be an interesting horse if he runs well in the Gold Cup."
Last year’s Grand National winner Pineau De Re appears to have been given a chance by the handicapper and will have the same prep-run as last year when taking in the Pertemps Hurdle at the Festival. His trainer appeared optimistic: “If he can build on his last run with a good show at Cheltenham and finish in the first six or seven, I think it's game on for Aintree," said Newland. "The weight makes it harder. He's 8lb higher, though if he'd been 8lb higher last year I think he'd have still won, so there are grounds for optimism."
Jonjo’s Shutthefrontdoor has been installed as national favourite and much will be written between now and April of the hopes for an AP McCoy sensational send-off. It’s likely that whichever horse the Champ decides to ride, punters will surely latch onto. Given 11st 2lb he is 12-1 with Aintree's official betting partner Betfred and Ladbrokes, although he is just one of six possible McManus runners.
"The Grand National never fails to top the turnover charts and this year's renewal could be a record-breaker with Tony McCoy due to take his final ride in the race," said Betfred spokesman Andrew Griffiths. "Whatever he rides is sure to go off favourite and the plunge has already begun on Shutthefrontdoor, who has halved in price since the entries were revealed."
His trainer appeared realistic in his appraisal: "It is probably a fair weight he has been given. We would like a bit less but that is what he has got to carry," said O'Neill. "He is a much better horse on flatter tracks and he likes good ground. I think everything will suit him. He had a few little problems but nothing serious. He is in good form, we are happy with him and everything seems to be going the right way."
A winner with Don’t Push It and only just beaten with Sunnyhillboy in 2011, the master of Jackdaws Castle knows what it takes to win the ‘big one’. Of his other entries the Hennessy Gold Cup third Merry King seems to have an attractive mark and Jonjo appeared to fancy his chances: “He ran a blinder in the Hennessy when finishing third behind Many Clouds. He loves good ground, jumps and stays well and he is a live contender for me.”
Neil Mulholland has had a terrific season and he has a live contender in The Druids Nephew. Given 10-9 for the Aintree showpiece his trainer appeared hopeful: “I'd be very happy with that. It's a nice weight and he's got a month to recover after Cheltenham, so he'll probably run. He'll go for the three-mile handicap on the Tuesday and he's in real good order, he might even be stronger. He's unexposed at staying trips, he ran a cracker at Cheltenham behind Sam Winner and then the Hennessy came too soon."
And so the build-up has begun. Just a small four day festival to get past and we can start looking forward to world’s most famous race.