Excitement growing as National races loom large on the horizon

CHICAGO Grey, winner of the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham, is one of 80 entries for the Coral Scottish Grand National at Ayr on Saturday April 16.

Gordon Elliott’s 10-year-old will bid to become the first Irish-trained winner of the race since it was moved to Ayr from Bogside in 1966. Tim Vaughan’s Beshabar, second to Chicago Grey, is also entered in the £180,000 race.

The Sir Alex Ferguson-owned What A Friend is another entry, although Paul Nicholls is likely to aim his Cheltenham Gold Cup fourth at the John Smith’s Grand National a week earlier. Other Nicholls entries are Neptune Collonges, Niche Market and The Minack.

Midlands Grand National winner, Minella Four Star from the David Pipe yard, Ferdy Murphy pair Poker de Sivola and Gallant Nuit are also entered, as is last year’s winner Merigo from Andrew Parker’s stable and the 2008 victor Iris de Balme now with Joanna Davis.

Entries were also lodged yesterday for the Isle Of Skye Blended Whisky Scottish Champion Hurdle and include last year’s winner, Overturn, from the Donald McCain yard, Colin Tizzard’s Cue Card, Get Me Out Of Here, from the Jonjo O’Neill stable, and the Alan King-trained pair Mille Chief and Salden Licht.

Advance ticket sales for the Coral Scottish Grand National Festival on April 15 and 16 are selling fast and discounts are still available up until seven days in advance. To book go online at www.ayr-racecourse.co.uk or call 01292-264179.

When you mention the Grand National, one name springs to mind. Red Rum was probably the ultimate Aintree hero, winning the race three times and such was his popularity that he is laid to rest beside the finish line at the course.

As we look forward to the Grand National this Saturday, it struck me that it is 30 years since my earliest memory of the great race. That year was 1981 and the winner was, of course, Aldaniti, ridden by Bob Champion. It was a miracle that horse and rider even took part in the race never mind win it as Champion had only just recovered from cancer after being given little chance of survival, and the horse had suffered from so many crippling injuries that it was thought at one point that the kindest thing for the animal was to put him to sleep.

There weren’t many dry eyes after that race I can assure you! I recently saw Bob Champion at Cheltenham and he is looking as well as ever.

So who is going to win the 2011 Grand National? There are plenty of good ones amongst them this year but if it’s a tip your after, the name of the winner of the first Grand National in 1839 is as good a guide as any: his name was Lottery!

Here’s some news on a few contenders before you make up your mind.

Grand National-winning jockey Robbie Power believes the bookmakers have got it wrong regarding his mount Killyglen in Saturday’s race. Power landed the great race on only his second attempt when galloping to glory on Silver Birch in 2007 and feels odds as big as 66-1 offered on Stuart Crawford’s nine-year-old are way off the mark.

“He’s in good old form. I rode him at Navan after racing last Saturday week. I jumped five fences on him and he went really well. He seemed in good order, but you need a lot of luck,” said the Irishman.

“He won that good novice chase [Mildmay] at Aintree two years ago. If he came back to that sort of form he’d have a good chance. I don’t think his runs this season have been that bad and he’s way overpriced.”

Peter Buchanan will ride scotland’s sole contender, Silver By Nature. Trained by Lucinda Russell and Peter Scudamore, the Geoff Brown-owned Grey has a live chance in the race.

Aidan Coleman will ride Grand Slam Hero for Nigel Twiston-Davies, having originally been pencilled in for the two-times National-winning trainer’s Roll Along.

The jockey sees the 2010 Summer Plate winner as a lively outsider in what will be his fourth ride in the race.

Davy Russell will be fit to ride Noel Glynn’s Becauseicouldntsee. The jockey will be back in action on Thursday after recovering from a hand injury suffered in a fall at Thurles last month.

His agent Frostie Kelly said: “He’ll be back riding at Aintree on Thursday and he’s looking forward to getting back. He’s looking forward to the big race on Saturday and he thinks the horse has a bit of a chance.”

Nina Carberry loved every second of her ride on Character Building when she got John Quinn’s grey into seventh place last year, and she is excited about having another go.

“I rode him last year when I didn’t really know him, but at least I know him a bit better this year and I’ve ridden him once since so I’m looking forward to the ride now,” she said. Midnight Chase and Synchronised are the most notable absentees following the confirmation stage for the race.

Welsh National winner Synchronised was last seen finishing third in the Midlands equivalent at Uttoxeter, while Cheltenham Gold Cup fifth Midnight Chase is instead likely to take his chance in Thursday’s totesport Bowl.

Last year’s National hero Don’t Push It heads 65 remaining entries, with Scotsirish, Notre Pere, Ballytrim and Nedzer’s Return the other horses who were in the race proper to have been withdrawn. Although Willie Mullins has taken out Scotsirish and the injured Ballytrim, the Irish champion trainer still has a strong hand, headed by ante-post favourite The Midnight Club. The County Carlow maestro can also call upon Dooneys Gate, as well as Arbor Supreme and Our Monty, who are now the final two horses guaranteed a place in the 40-runner race.

Royal Rosa joins that pair on 10st 3lb, but as he comes out worst on official ratings, he is 41st on the list and therefore needs one horse above him to come out.

British champion Paul Nicholls is still searching for an elusive first National triumph and he too is mob-handed, with Gold Cup fourth What A Friend seemingly the best of his team.

The Tother One, Niche Market and Ornais are other likely contenders for the Ditcheat handler.

Backstage, Ballabriggs, Oscar Time, and Big Fella Thanks also figure in the remaining entries.

State Of Play has not run since he finished third to Don’t Push It in the great race 12 months ago – he was also fourth in 2009 – and trainer Evan Williams reports his stable stalwart to be in fine shape as he attempts to make it third-time lucky.

“He did his final piece of work on Saturday and he will have a school on Monday morning, but everything is good and we’re happy with him,” said Williams.

n A full review of the National, plus a preview of the Scottish Grand National will appear in these columns next week.