Although I somehow managed to find three numbers in Saturday night’s draw, the odds of winning the Lottery have ballooned beyond realism since the amount of balls went up to 59. So we may as well have a go at finding the winner of the Grand National instead.
Lottery was the name of the very first horse to gallop to National glory way back in 1839. But who will follow in Lottery’s footsteps in the Crabbie’s-sponsored £1 million marathon set to grace Aintree in its new teatime slot on Saturday, April 9?
The weights are now out, and they reveal a stellar cast that reflects how the National has rubberstamped its status as the world’s greatest horse-race. The cream of staying chasers is represented by the likes of last year’s winner, MANY CLOUDS, multiple Grade-One winners, LONG RUN and SILVINIACO CONTI, and a host of rising stars.
The final field of 40 has yet to be whittled down. But it’s always fun, six weeks in advance, delving into the entries and digging out some each/way value at speculative ante-post prices that we can, hopefully, take with us to Liverpool on the big day. So here is my long-range shortlist (if there can be such a thing!) of seven horses who, if they make the gig, look highly tempting propositions. In brackets are the weights they’ve been allocated and their best price at the time of writing.
O’FAOLAINS BOY (11-1, 50/1)
The form of trainer Rebecca Curtis remains a worry, but her nine-year-old has been hailed a National type since beating Many Clouds in a graded novices’ chase at Ascot in 2014. A month later, he lowered the colours of Smad Place when winning the RSA at the Cheltenham Festival and although he was forced to miss last season because of injury, he proved he was firing on all cylinders again when hammering Saturday’s impressive Ascot winner, Sausalito Sunrise, at Newbury in December. A rare poor effort at Cheltenham last month was attributed to very heavy ground.
SHUTTHEFRONTDOOR (10-11, 20/1)
Despite fading into fifth, Jonjo O’Neill’s JP McManus-owned nine-year-old gave Tony McCoy a wonderful final ride in the National last year, taking to the fences like a natural. Stamina appeared to ebb away from the second last, but I suspect that was because he’d raced too fresh and free in the first half of the race after a long absence. If O’Neill can get a nice prep run into him between now and April, the 2014 Irish National winner could go close off a generous handicap mark 1lb lower than 12 months ago.
GALLANT OSCAR (10-8, 33/1)
Second-guessing the modus operandi of shrewd Irish trainer Tony Martin is far from easy. But don’t be surprised if this JP McManus-owned ten-year-old emerges as a major National fancy now the weights have been released. His mark of 149 is very fair, given the progress he unveiled at the end of last term when third in a big handicap at the Cheltenham Festival before bolting up at Punchestown. So far this term, his light has been kept under a bushel, but he’s a classy sort who was favourite for the Scottish National last April before being pulled out on the morning of the race because the ground was too quick.
MORNING ASSEMBLY (10-9, 40/1)
As a novice hurdler, Pat Fahy’s lightly-raced nine-year-old won a Grade One. As a novice chaser, he tamed leading Gold Cup fancy Don Cossack before finishing a creditable third in the RSA at the Cheltenham Festival. No wonder then that Irish handler Fahy has publicly expressed his delight at a weight of 10-9 for a contest almost sure to suit his charge’s reserves of stamina. He’s on the comeback trail after 21 months off with a minor injury, but two runs this term suggest he is fully recovered.
LONG RUN (10-8, 50/1)
The Waley-Cohens’ ageing legend is clearly past his best, but his regression is reflected in a handicap mark of 149 that is a massive 33lbs lower than his peak in 2011 when he added a Gold Cup to his two King Georges, slaying Kauto Star and Denman no less. And it’s not as if such a drop is a reaction to some poor performances. Only two starts ago, he was third in a Grade One at Punchestown. Admittedly, he’s not seen a track for nearly two years now, with a bid to qualify him for the Foxhunters’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival scuppered by testing ground, But connections insist he’s fine and capable of making amends for his National mishap of 2014 when, off 160, he travelled too exuberantly and came down.
SHOTGUN PADDY (10-3, 50/1)
Unless there is plenty of give in the ground, Emma Lavelle’s game and genuine nine-year-old is unlikely to be seen anywhere near Liverpool on April 9. But such a risk is built into a price that is wildly inflated on the pick of his form in demanding marathons, which includes a brave third under a big weight in the Welsh National last month. Amazingly, he remains on the same handicap mark from Chepstow of 144. He’s won a Grade Three handicap off 1lb lower.
PERFECT CANDIDATE (10-2, 66/1)
Fergal O’Brien’s consistent nine-year-old stayer spends most of his time racing at Cheltenham and is likely to be back there for the Festival next month. But I know the trainer has an eye on the National too for a horse who should relish the extreme distance of the Aintree contest, especially off a featherweight, and is a safe, reliable jumper.
Victoria falls -- just like Prince Charles did
Spearheaded by the exploits of trainer Kerry Lee and jockey Lizzie Kelly, women have stamped their influence on the current Jumps season. Whether or not Victoria Pendleton will enrich the roll of honour even further remains to be seen after her admirable attempt to go from Olympic cyclist to Cheltenham Festival rider hit the buffers with a tumble at Fakenham.
The Pendleton saga has attracted widespread attention and bears eerie echoes of the time Prince Charles undertook a similar venture back in 1981. Unlike Victoria, he was already an experienced horseman, via hunting and polo. But his Festival ambition ended in grief when, three weeks after announcing his engagement to Lady Diana Spencer, the 32-year-old Prince was unseated at the tenth fence of the Kim Muir Handicap Chase.