Flood of pride as Quest parades

Greg Wood sees the Grand National winner step out for a new campaign
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Like every other National Hunt trainer in Britain, Terry Casey has spent the last few weeks praying for rain, but at 1.15 yesterday he must have wished he had done so with a little less fervour. Standing in a downpour, radio-mike in hand, he talked a party of lunch guests and journalists through his best prospects for the coming season, as the animals in question squelched forlornly around the paddock and his audience admired them from the shelter of the marquee which was steadily disappearing into Casey's back garden. By the time half a dozen or so horses had paraded, the trainer was drenched, and had it not been for his stout rubber wellingtons, the microphone might well have given him the shock of his life.

But then the final exhibit appeared, and it was as if the sun had come out. When you have the Grand National winner in your care even imminent hypothermia is easily ignored, and the pride with which Casey had discussed all of his charges rose by several notches. "This is Rough Quest," he said, "and he needs no introduction."

And what a sight he was. Every inch the chaser from the soles of his hooves to the top of his heavy, muscular frame, last year's National winner and Gold Cup runner-up has recently started serious exercise and is, according to Casey, "as well as I've ever seen him". He should soon be ready for his prep-race before the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, the first of three major targets in a projected campaign, which includes another attempt at both the Gold Cup and the National.

Just a few weeks ago, though, even the prep-race was hanging in the balance. "He came back so fresh and well, and he managed to bruise a tendon," Casey said. "Any tendon problem is a worry, particularly with such a heavy-topped horse, but Guy Harwood generously allowed us to use his swimming pool to exercise him and now he has been back cantering for two weeks."

As a result, Andrew Wates, Rough Quest's owner, can plot a path for his chaser which leads back to Aintree in April. "We won't go to the King George unless he's had a run first," Wates said, "and the Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow [on 7 December] is the most likely choice, but he's still a novice over hurdles, so we could even run him in a hurdle."

It is seven months since Wates, one of National Hunt's most enthusiastic owners, enjoyed the most important success of his life. Even now his pride has not started to dissipate, while the memory of the 20-minute stewards' inquiry into possible interference between Rough Quest and Encore Un Peu on the run-in is also fresh.

"It was a new level of stress," Wates said. "I was quite confident when I saw it side-on from the stands, but then Des Lynam showed me the head- on and it looked horrendous, and I thought it was going to be tight. But Rough Quest went by quite fast, and he was two or three lengths clear when he crossed over. He does go left, and always has, so perhaps we need to school Mick Fitzgerald to carry his stick in his left hand."

The 27-runner field, which Rough Quest led home in April, was the smallest for the National in a quarter of a century. At Aintree racecourse, there is a keen desire to ensure that the numbers are not similarly depleted this year, and changes have been made to the conditions of the race. The top-weight in the handicap will rise to 12 stone, while at the overnight stage the maximum burden will be raised, if necessary, to 11st 10lb rather than 11st 7lb, to allow more runners into the handicap proper. These changes will apply to all handicap chases over three and a half miles or more.

At the same time, the minimum rating to qualify for the race will drop from 120 to 110, while the return from a two-week to three-week gap between the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals should also boost the field, which will be racing for record added prize-money of pounds 250,000. "Our objective is to attract class horses, while at the same time producing a field as close as possible to the safety number of 40," Charles Barnett, Aintree's managing director, said.

It was hard to maintain a sense of humour in yesterday's downpour, but one observer managed to raise a smile. William Hill make Rough Quest their 16-1 favourite for the 1997 National, a race which is five months' distant and for which the weights will not be published until mid-February. Unbridled mirth at this derisory quote is restrained only by the thought that there may be punters out there who are daft enough to take it.