Athlete swells the National defections

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The Independent Online
These are grim times for the advertising department at Aintree racecourse. Already ruffled by the proximity of next Wednesday's Dubai World Cup, the world's richest race, to the Grand National a week on Saturday, Liverpool's organisers have had to remove many of the eye-catching names from the top of the bill.

Imperial Call, who could have contested the Martell Cup, and his nearest Gold Cup pursuer, Rough Quest, will not be at Liverpool and neither, it seems, will be Jodami. He is still recovering from the bacterial infection that made him hors de combat for the Blue Riband.

Further pencil-snapping news arrived yesterday when it was announced that last year's victor, Royal Athlete, has been retired. The loss of a defending champion is bad enough, but it also means there will be less justifiable space for the National's greatest friend in front of microphone and camera, Mrs J S Pitman. Jenny, we can be sure, will find a way round that, especially as she has other runners in the race.

The 13-year-old Royal Athlete, who had been a 25-1 chance to repeat his success, was retired after a meeting between the trainer, her son and assistant Mark, and the gelding's owners, Libby and Gary Johnson.

"Due to the prolonged spells of frost and snow, and the fact that we are unable to train him on artificial surfaces, we feel that we would not be able to produce 'Alfie' at Aintree in the condition we would like," Mrs Pitman said. "Royal Athlete has been a great ambassador, not only for his owners but for ourselves, and he has been enjoyed over the years by a great number of National Hunt supporters.

"While it leaves us with a feeling of sadness to bring his racing career to an end, we know that this is the right decision as the welfare of our horses is always uppermost in our minds. Royal Athlete is to remain at Weathercock House and will be very happy to receive all the Polos and carrots that our visitors are likely to bring to the open day on Good Friday."

Royal Athlete's Aintree victory made it a good Saturday for Mark Pitman, who was then in his first full season as assistant to his mother. "We all have mixed emotions about his retirement, sad because we'll miss him on the racecourse but happy that he is retiring in one piece," Pitman said. "Hopefully he is going to lead the youngsters and possibly go hunting next season as he is still sound.

"We've had great fun with him. The highlight was of course his win at Aintree last year, but don't forget he was third in a Gold Cup and was the top staying novice of his year, winning six out of eight, including the Reynoldstown at Ascot and victories at Aintree and Ayr. We have had him since he was a three-year-old and he has been a great servant to the racing public."

Royal Athlete's retirement completes a somewhat disastrous six days for his partner at Liverpool last year, Jason Titley. The Irishman's other possible National partner was Monsieur Le Cure, who died under him in the Gold Cup on Thursday. Preliminary tests suggest John Edwards's gelding may have broken a pelvis as he tried to clear the fence at which he broke his neck on landing.

As the stream of retirements from the race fuel the belief that this will be the smallest National field for many years, last year's winning jockey is finding it difficult to get a ride. "Things are cutting up and cutting up," Titley said. "Son Of War would be a great ride to jump round but Francis Woods will probably ride him and Lo Stregone has a good chance but either Charlie [Swan] or Jamie Osborne will probably ride him.

"Mrs Pitman's Superior Finish would have to have a chance, but he will be ridden by Warren Marston. It is getting late in the day but we have just got to keep on looking."

There will be little point looking for a secure mount in Cumbria. Gordon Richards warned yesterday that his National entry, Tartan Tyrant, a 20- 1 shot with Coral, will run only if the ground is soft or heavy.

Grand National (30 March): Coral: 7-1 Lo Stregone, 10-1 Deep Bramble, Young Hustler (from 12-1), 12-1 Son Of War (from 14-1), 14-1 Life Of A Lord (from 16-1), Superior Finish, 16-1 Dextra Dove, Wylde Hide, Party Politics, 20-1 others.