Cheltenham Festival fever had to take a back-seat for a while this week when the weights were published for the 2014 Crabbie’s Grand National.
Thanks to new sponsors, Crabbie’s, this year’s Aintree showpiece on Saturday 5th April will be the first-ever £1 million National.
And a mouthwatering race is in prospect, courtesy of a top-class field, headed by multiple Grade One and Grade Two winners, TIDAL BAY and LONG RUN.
The Paul Nicholls-trained veteran Tidal Bay, who looks better than ever this season at the age of 13, has been allotted top-weight of 11st 10lb.
The Grand National is the only race for which the British Horseracing Authority’s (BHA) head of handicapping Phil Smith specifically frames the weights, and he gave Tidal Bay a mark equating to a rating of 161, 7lb less than the horse’s official rating of 168.
Nicholls’s charge most recently finished second in the Grade One Irish Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday, having previously been a galant third, also off top weight, in the Welsh National at Chepstow in December.
Tidal Bay, who unseated his rider in the 2011 Aintree National, is 20/1 co-favourite of three with the track’s official betting partner, Betfred.
Nicholls has six others entered for this year’s big race, including HAWKES POINT (10st 6lb, 25/1), who could line up in this Saturday’s Betfred Grand National Trial at Haydock Park on his first start since being beaten a head into second in the Welsh National.
Stablemate ROCKY CREEK (25/1), who finished runner-up in the Argento Chase at Cheltenham on his latest run, has been allotted 11st 5lb, although Nicholls warns he might bypass the race and go for the Cheltenham Gold Cup instead.
Nicholls’s rival for the jumps trainers’ championship, Nicky Henderson, has yet to win the Grand National in no fewer than 33 attempts. But he is well represented at the top-end of the handicap this year with three of the five highest-weighted horses.
The 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup and dual King George VI Chase winner Long Run (25/1) has 11st 9lb, while Hennessy Gold Cup hero TRIOLO D’ALENE (20/1 co-favourite) has been allotted 11st 6lb. While the former is seeking to regain his best form, the latter is an exciting horse on the up who won the Topham Chase over the National fences at Aintree last year.
Old favourite HUNT BALL, a former Cheltenham Festival winner who has yet to have his first start for Henderson, has been given a weight of 11st 7lb and is a 66/1 chance with Betfred. While another horse of interest from Henderson’s Seven Barrows stable is SHAKALAKABOOMBOOM (10st 2lb, 33/1), who ran a blinder in the 2012 National off an official rating of 9lb higher.
One of the leading fancies for the race will almost certainly be the Michael Scudamore-trained MONBEG DUDE (10st 9lb), whose sloppy jumping has been brushed up by Princess Anne’s daughter, Zara Phillips, wife of the horse’s part-owner Mike Tindall. Winner of the 2012 Welsh Grand National, he is the third 20/1 co-favourite with Betfred.
Ireland’s champion trainer Willie Mullins, winner of the 2005 Aintree spectacular with Hedgehunter, has eight chances of enhancing his record in the Grand National.
Mullins’s leading contenders are ON HIS OWN (11st 3lb, 25/1), who has fallen in each of last two attempts in the race, the fragile PRINCE DE BEAUCHENE (10st 10lb, 33/1) and Paddy Power Chase winner ROCKABOYA (25/1), who is joint 88th on the list of runners with a weight of 9st 11lb.
Other talented challengers from Ireland include two from the yard of Ted Walsh, father of ace jockey Ruby Walsh, who saddled Papillon to win the National in 2000. COLBERT STATION (25/1), who fell at The Chair last year, has been allotted 11st, while stablemate SEABASS (33/1), who was third in 2012, has 11st 2lb. The latter was also 13th when sent off 11/2 favourite under trainer’s daughter, Katie Walsh, last year.
Colbert Station is one of many in with a chance owned by JP McManus. SUNNYHILLBOY (10st 9lb, 33/1), who is trained by Jonjo O’Neill, looks dangerous, considering he is returning to the form that saw him finish a gallant second to Neptune Collonges in the National of 2012.
Former winners of the Irish Grand National have a sound record in the Aintree race, so 2012 victor LION NA BERNAI (1025 10lb, 33/1), trained by Tom Gibney might be an outsider worth keeping an eye on.
Crack hunter chaser MOSSEY JOE (33/1) is also an intriguing contender. He joined Enda Bolger after selling for £160,000 to owner Barry Connell at a Cheltenham sale last month and has been given 11st 1lb.
Another Irish handler, Martin Brassil, successful with Numbersixvalverde in 2006, is likely to run DOUBLE SEVEN, who has 10st 11lb and is priced at 33/1.
There has been no Welsh-trained winner of the Grand National since 1905. But las year’s third, TEAFORTHREE is back for another crack from Rebecca Curtis’s Pembrokeshire yard. He carried 11st 3lb in 2013 but has 5lb less for the 2014 race and is quoted at an enticing 25/1.
Last year’s winner Auroras Encore has been retired, but his connections of trainer Sue Smith and owners Jim Beaumont, Douglas Pryde and David van der Hoeven are again represented this time round with the ten-year-old MR MOONSHINE(40/1). An excellent jumper, he has won his last two starts and will line up with 10st 12lb on his back.
The Welsh National winner MOUNTAINOUS (33/1) has a weight of 10st 7lb, while the Alan King-trained GODSMEJUDGE (25/1), winner of the 2013 Scottish National, has 10st 11lb.
Two other fascinating entries are BIG SHU (10st 8lb, 40/1), emphatic winner of the Cheltenham Festival cross-country race last year, and CAPE TRIBULATION (50/1) , who is very well-handicapped on 10st 12lb on his top-notch form last term.
A total of 114 entries go forward into the race and no fewer than 82 of those (72 per cent) are in the handicap proper. There will be a maximum field-size of 40 (with an additional four reserves) on the day.