Racing: Suny ready to step from the shadows

Richard Edmondson expects last year's Grand National runner-up to take over the leading role
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The Independent Online
THEY used to duck witches and pile brushwood at the feet of martyrs for the sort of heresy that has been doing the rounds before Grand National 1998.

Several folk, some of them quite learned in the sport, have actually had the temerity to say this year's marathon over spruce walls is not much of a race. Sacrilege indeed.

There are always those who think the race was ruined by the trimming of the fences. These turf versions of the guillotine hags seemed to be happy only when Aintree was smoking at the end of battle with piles of dead horses for decoration. Yes, the obstacles have been modified, but then so has legislation on bear-baiting and nobody is complaining about that.

For the moaners who believe there is no longer an Aintree factor the betting market makes unhealthy reading. Rough Quest, Suny Bay and Samlee, all of whom have completed voyages around this course, are at the forefront of the betting.

More pertinent is the suggestion that the old race might be a little light on class this year. In recent times, illumination has been provided by an animal coming on from a storming effort in the Cheltenham Gold Cup to run here. That option is not available today. In fact, it is the prolonged contemplation of this year's outstanding Cheltenham Festival that has delayed the embarkation of the Liverpool publicity bandwagon.

In addition, there is nothing even vaguely fancied in the betting which won its last race. This absence of outstanding recent form means that the old warhorse Rough Quest is likely to start favourite, even though the only race he has won since victory here two years ago was over hurdles at Folkestone. All this does not mean that jockeys or spectators are in store for a dull afternoon. The mini-cameras that will be attached, Grand Prix-style, to riders' helmets will replay that evidence for us.

Today's may not be a contest of the highest calibre, but then the Grand National is not meant to be. It's a handicap for a start, and the whole endeavour is about survival. It doesn't matter how quickly you get round the daunting obstacles as long as you do it. After all, there is no-one with a stopwatch at the foot of Everest to send you on your way.

Rough Quest undoubtedly transported better form coming into this race two years ago, when he won after finishing second in the Gold Cup. At Cheltenham last month he fell. He is up in the weights from his glory year and is one of the oldest in the field so he hardly represents great value. Yet, as he always appears a better beast when the daffodil trumpets are out, he cannot be ignored.

The soft ground should be in his favour, though against Avro Anson, who ran quite well last Friday, but that was on the Flat at Doncaster, which, in terms of preparation for today's encounter, was like going for a shower as practice for a cross-Channel swim.

Of the many horses out of the handicap, most interest is generated by Samlee and Him Of Praise. There will be some sorry figures tonight at the White Lion in the Warwickshire village of Bulkington should the former succeed. The regulars own him.

Mass intoxication is not out of the question as Samlee knows what it is like to cross these fences successfully, having collected the Becher Chase here in November. Richard Dunwoody goes for his third win in the race.

If the animal-rights army send a battalion today, one focus for their attention would be Him Of Praise, whose preparation has included chasing Basil Brush with the hounds. Another leading jockey and a man who does not have many Nationals left in him, Charlie Swan, takes the ride. Him Of Praise has schooled over mock Aintree fences at Lambourn this week, though there is nothing false about his form, on which he should beat both Earth Summit and Nahthen Lad.

The champion jockey, Tony McCoy, partners the one horse in western Europe he cannot seem to master, Challenger Du Luc. The gelding's class is undoubted, but he is increasingly loath to use it as the most notable member of the turf's care in the community programme.

Scotton Banks too has quality about him, or at least he used to. The nine-year-old was a smart chaser two years ago until someone shut the lid on his ability. He is still not an old horse, however, he stays as long as you like and is too big a price in this field. Back him for a place.

The one for the win money, though, is the horse that finished second last year on unsuitably hard going. It is going to take a real yomper to succeed this afternoon and SUNY BAY (nap 3.45) fits that vital criterion.

The nine-year-old had an unusual preparation for this event. In the Cheltenham Gold Cup the grey almost suffered death by a thousand cuts when he dropped his hind legs in a couple of fences and returned with wounds interweaved across his rear. Phil Sharp, Suny Bay's lad, has spent many hours removing splinters from the injuries.

Sharp was the man who stayed behind after the bomb warnings a year ago, when he feared that he might be picking more devastating shrapnel out of the many horses in his care. The lad was the hero of Aintree 1997. Now it is his horse's turn.

The experts' opinions

RICHARD EDMONDSON

1 Suny Bay

2 Him Of Praise

3 Rough Quest

4 Samlee

Best outsider: Scotton Banks

GREG WOOD

1 Dun Belle

2 Rough Quest

3 Challenger Du Luc

4 Him Of Praise

Best outsider: Scotton Banks

HYPERION

1 Him Of Praise

2 Rough Quest

3 Court Melody

4 Suny Bay

Best outsider: Celtic Abbey

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