Highland Lodge, a course specialist trained by Jimmy Moffatt in the Lake District where the spruce that dresses Aintree’s iconic fences is cut, can book his place in the annals of steeplechasing history by winning the 170th Randox Health Grand National.
Bookmakers are predicting that their regular punters and those who enjoy a once-a-year flutter on the race will bet £250 million on Saturday’s race, one of the most open Nationals that I can remember.
Definity Red is likely to be sent off favourite because he will be popular with both; his recent form suggests he is 10lbs well in and, though the purists will scoff, because he has ‘red’ in his name.
Red Rum – it is the 40th anniversary of his third win – Red Alligator and Red Marauder have won five Nationals between them. The only other colour to have triumphed in the National is silver.
Course form over the National fences is not a prerequisite to winning the race – neither last year’s winner Rule The World nor the runner-up, The Last Samuri, had been round before – but it surely has to be a factor in Highland Lodge’s favour that he has been fist and second on his last two starts over the fences.
Last year he failed to make the cut after winning the Becher Chase, but a narrow defeat in December, to another of the fancied runners, Lion Vieux Rouge, and the Handicapper’s decision to apply some “Aintree factor” to his rating for the National, means he comfortably makes the cut this year.
Connections, including the jockey, are also convinced Highland Lodge would be coming here on the back of two Becher Chase wins had Brooke, who was just back in the saddle two months after breaking eight ribs and a shoulder and spending two nights in an induced coma after a Hexham fall, been fitter.
Other things going for him are that, unlike a lot of rivals, he comes into the race fresh having not run since the Becher in December, he races handily, which helps for keeping out of trouble, and he should stay. Good to soft ground is fine.
After a quiet back-end of the winter, the relatively small Moffatt stable had a winner at Kelso on Monday, which is another positive, while he is 11, which makes him, technically, a ‘veteran’ in today’s steeplechasing terms, with three of the last five winners having been that age.
The Becher Chase may well hold the key to this year’s National, with Vieux Lion Rouge, Highland Lodge, The Last Samuri, Ucello Conti and One For Arthur all finishing in a tight bunch. Vieux Lion Rouge has gone on to win Haydock’s Grand National trial and, like Definitly Red, he is one of 10 horses whose rating has improved since the weights were announced on Valentine’s Day.
Others in the same bracket include last year’s RSA winner Blaklion, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, who won this race with Earth Summit in 1998 and Bindaree 2002 ; Gold Cup fifth Saphir Du Rheu, from the yard of Paul Nicholls, who won with Neptune Collonges in 2012; More Of That, from Jonjo O’Neill’s yard, who sent out Don’t Push it to score famously for Sir Tony McCoy in 2010; Cause Of Causes, who represents 2007 National winner Gordon Elliott; another improver is Pleaasant Company, trained by Willie Mullins, who won, in 2005, with Hedgehunter. He looks the best of the Irish. Just A Par. Thunder And Roses and Tenor Nivernais also fit in this category, but all have run stinkers since improving their rating.
A rejuvenated Wonderful Charm stayed on strongly to finish second in the Foxhunters’ Chase at Cheltenham last month and gives Katie Walsh a chance of becoming the first female to ride the winner. However, the nine-year-old made little impression in last year’s race when pulled up at the 21st.
It is a while since an amateur won the race and, apart from Walsh, the unpaid ranks are represented by Jamie Codd, the vastly experienced Irish point-to-point jockey, who gets on very well with Cause Of Causes, having won three races on him at the Cheltenham Festival, including the cross-country last month, and Sam Waley-Cohen.
It is in Cause Of Causes’s favour that trainer Gordon Elliott took that route with Silver Birch in 2007, but the last horse to win at the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National in the same season was Seagram, in 1991.
Waley-Cohen has been the go-to man for the Grand National course, although his record has taken a couple of hits lately. He teams up with The Young Master who, though falling at the last in the Becher, has been trained all season with this race in mind.
Other National winners have a pretty good record in the race. Rogue Angel has been out of sorts since winning the Irish equivalent last spring but he represents last year’s winning trainer and owner, Mouse Morris and Gigginstown.
Likewise, Vicente, the Scottish National winner a year ago, needs to prove he is a spring horse, while the distance should suit Raz de Maree, the Cork National winner, who went on to finish second in the Welsh National at Christmas.
History has shown that Scottish winners do not grow on trees, with Rubstic, the 1979 winner, the one and only.
However, bookmakers north of the border will face a big pay out if Lucinda Russell’s One For Arthur triumphs for Kinross.
If he can stay in touch on the ground he could also be a big player, but I fancy the winner’s Scottish connection will be in name only; Highland Lodge.