With a global television audience of 600m and betting turnover climbing every year, the Grand National is one of the best-watched sporting events in the world. But while competitors come these days from as far away as Australia and South Africa to compete for top prizes on the Flat, the field for Britain’s richest handicap over jumps is not yet an international one.
Not that that makes an English victory even a probability. Irish trained horses have won five times in the past eight years, and with English trainers having repelled the Emerald Isle invasion at Cheltenham this year, the Irish will be looking for revenge.
Four of the top six horses in the National betting are Irish. Although trainer Tony Martin fears the going may be firming up too much for the well-backed Dun Doire, the Irish have strength in depth with past winners Hedgehunter (2005), Numbersixvalverde (2006) and with Point Barrow, winner of last year’s Irish National.
Sibling rivalry will add a shamrock relish. Point Barrow, trained by Pat Hughes, will be ridden by Philip Carberry, who seized the limelight winning this year’s Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham on Sublimity. Dun Doire’s partner is his elder brother Paul, a man nearly as famous for his victory celebrations as for his skill in the saddle.
Paul is no softie. Once he was telephoned by an anxious trainer who had booked him for a big race. “I hear you’ve had an accident out hunting – what did you hurt.” “A gate,” came the reply.
The French have not won the Grand National since Cortolvin in 1867 and many would love François Doumen, the most popular French export to Britain since Camembert, to get his name on the trophy. Doumen, who has won a Cheltenham Gold Cup with The Fellow and several King George VI chases, has the brothers L’Ami and Kelami running in the race. Both can be given a chance.
Admittedly L’Ami, who ran the scintillating Kauto Star to a neck (receiving 10lb) in Newbury’s Aon Chase, would be carrying the biggest weight to victory since Red Rum in 1977 if he were to win bearing 11st 8lb. But owner J.P. McManus, whose one-time close second Clan Royal runs again at the age of 12, and champion jockey Tony McCoy, who rides L’Ami, must be due some National luck. McCoy, who has never won the race, tuned up nicely by winning the Irish National on Butler’s Cabin this week.
Kelami, who once ran in the late Queen Mother’s colours, is now owned by John Halewood, whose Amberleigh House gave Ginger McCain his fourth victory in the race after Red Rum’s three.
Leading home fancies include Billyvoddan, Idle Talk and Simon, all of whom have special associations with Aintree.
Billyvoddan is trained by Henry Daly whose mentor, the late Tim Forster, won the race with Well To Do, Ben Nevis and Last Suspect. The pessimistic Forster’s characteristic instructions to Last Suspect’s jockey were said to have been: “Keep remounting.” Billyvoddan’s Aintree odds were trimmed after the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham when he stayed on strongly in third.
Idle Talk was bought recently by Hedgehunter’s owner Trevor Hemmings, who has switched him to trainer Donald McCain, son of Red Rum’s fabled handler Ginger, who is now his voluble assistant. McCain junior has trained more than 50 winners in his first season and if he succeeds with Idle Talk his No. 2 may have to stop talking and listen.
A win for Simon would add further lustre to one of the great names of Grand National history. The horse, trained in Worcestershire by John Spearing, is owned by 87-year-old Mercy Rimell, whose late husband Fred trained four different National winners from the same base.
English entries include the fragile but talented Eurotrek, a winner over the National fences in the Becher Chase. Eurotrek is handled by champion trainer Paul Nicholls, who has sent out 33 National runners without a winner, but he may need softer ground. Monkerhostin, fourth in the Gold Cup, could spring a surprise, however.
It could be a grand National for amateur riders. John Thomas McNamara, who partners Clan Royal, may be having his first ride in the race but “JT” is Ireland’s most successful point-to-point jockey with nearly 500 victories.
Sam Waley-Cohen, who rides the Nicky Henderson-trained Liberthine, has a record over the National fences any professional would envy. In five starts in races such as the Foxhunters and Topham chases, he has won three times.
What would really open the tear ducts is a win for Henderson’s long-time stable jockey, the loquacious Mick Fitzgerald, on Doumen’s Kelami. At 37, Mick has been teetering on the edge of retirement. That would probably make up his mind.
My four against the field? Point Barrow, Monkerhostin, Idle Talk and Clan Royal.
■THE INVESTOR: ODDS AND WEIGHT-WATCHERS CAN FATTEN THEIR WALLETS WITH POINT BARROW
For 364 days of the year most UK citizens would not deign to enter the demi-monde that is your average high street bookmaker’s. But today is the day when everyone has a punt on one race, the Grand National.
This great event has become part of the collective consciousness and has created its own myths. The biggest of all is that the best way to find a winner is to close your eyes and let the pin do the work. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the last 10 races the biggest priced winner was 33/1, when Red Marauder claimed a farcical race in freak weather conditions in 2001. Two favourites in single odds have obliged in the same timeframe and, at a price of 11/1, last year’s winner, Numbersixvalverde, was typical. It pays to concentrate on horses near the top of the betting.
The most important statistic to bear in mind is that only one horse has carried greater than 11st 5lb to victory since 1957. The exception was the sainted Red Rum. That puts a line through some well-fancied horses, including L’Ami and Hedgehunter. Hedgehunter will be helped by the good ground, though his overall level of form is not quite as impressive as when runner-up last year.
The pre-race story has been the massive gamble on Joe’s Edge. Before his win at Cheltenham just over a month ago, this horse was available at any price. He now looks certain to start favourite. Based on both his Cheltenham run and his victory in the Scottish Grand National in 2005, he certainly has a chance.
But no horse has won at Cheltenham and followed up in the Grand National since 1961. Possible wear and tear from the festival and the poor showing of the horses that Joe’s Edge just short-headed at Cheltenham in the Irish Grand National on Monday does not bode well.
A horse that has been supported all season is Irish raider Point Barrow and he looks the one to back. He is feasibly weighted and has been campaigned with this one race in mind since winning the Irish Grand National last season. He will relish the ground conditions, stays well and if he gets in a rhythm will take all the beating.
There are plenty with each-way chances. Anyone rushing to back Joe’s Edge at 7/1 should take a look at the video of the Becher Chase, run over the National fences this season. On that form he is well held by the likes of Bewleys Berry and McKelvey, who are available at about 20/1. The latter makes the most appeal as he will love the ground and thrive at the marathon distance.
2:15 Fair Along (win)
2:50 Gaspara (each-way)
4:15 (John Smith’s Grand National Handicap Chase) Point Barrow (win); McKelvey (each-way)