Abbey puts Lee in Aintree predicament

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The Independent Online

It is all coming so easily to Graham Lee at the moment. The leading jockey at the Cheltenham Festival continued onwards and upwards yesterday with a near 93-1 treble at Wetherby. Yet the man in charge of the numbers has a single difficult decision to make.

It is all coming so easily to Graham Lee at the moment. The leading jockey at the Cheltenham Festival continued onwards and upwards yesterday with a near 93-1 treble at Wetherby. Yet the man in charge of the numbers has a single difficult decision to make.

A record 107 horses were left in the Grand National at yesterday's forfeit stage, but the two which matter to Lee are Amberleigh House, last year's winner, and Grey Abbey, an inmate of the Howard Johnson stable which provided Lee's great glory at the Festival. The jockey is juggling expedience and reality about which he should ride.

Grey Abbey is no definite starter after suffering a joint problem recently, although he remains in the Liverpool race as top-weight. Regardless of whether he runs, trainer Ginger McCain is certain Lee should pick his horse, Amberleigh House. "I cannot think he would be so daft as to get off the horse. He owes it to the horse to ride him - and never mind Mr Johnson, or anybody else," McCain said yesterday. "That aside, if he wants to get off the favourite for the National, the horse with the very best chance, then it's up to him.

"I would be disappointed if he did, but if he does, subject to discussion with Mr [John] Halewood [Amberleigh House's owner], Jason Maguire will ride him."

It will all be left to Lee. Connections of Grey Abbey would be delighted to see the Irishman on the grey's back on 9 April, but are also prepared to release him should he opt to partner the favourite. "Howard has told Graham he can ride Amberleigh House," Sue Johnson, the trainer's wife, said yesterday. "He said 'he knows his way round and if you want to be on Amberleigh House, you go for it'. He's not put a gun to his head, he's given him the option.

"Graham did say that if we'd asked him after the Scottish National he would have said Abbey would not have jumped round, but, for some reason, he's learned to shorten and fiddle a bit more. So there may be a chance he might go for the National." Lee's problem is concentrated by the fact that there appears to be no deterioration in the old bones of Amberleigh House. He is due to partner the gelding in a spin at Haydock on Sunday morning.

"Everything is going as well as hoped with him," McCain added. "The plan is to give him a gallop over maybe two or two and a half miles and perhaps jump three or fences at Haydock on Sunday morning.

"Graham will come down to ride him and it will be interesting to see what he thinks of him, because he has not sat on him since the Becher Chase."

All the leading hopes remain in the National, including last year's runner-up Clan Royal and third home Lord Atterbury, so a fascinating rematch could be on the cards. Just 23 horses were taken out of the race, with last week's Cheltenham Festival second Keen Leader the most notable absentee.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup disappointment Celestial Gold was taken out by Martin Pipe, as was Truckers Tavern, who failed to make any kind of show in the same race for trainer Ferdy Murphy. That leaves 68 horses in the handicap proper, with the cut-off point for the maximum field of 40 currently on 10st 4lb.

* Trying to "buy" money proved an expensive error at Exeter yesterday when a Tony McCoy-ridden 1-5 favourite, Blue Endeavour, passed the post first but was then demoted to second place. Among recorded bets for McCoy's mount were a £1,400 to win £400, and several bets of £1,000. Blue Endeavour hung left across the 16-1 outsider Algymo after jumping the last flight, causing Algymo's rider, the amateur Wayne Kavanagh, to switch right. Algymo began to rally again on the run-in, and in the final strides was impeded again when Blue Endeavour veered left. Algymo was given the race after a stewards' inquiry on the grounds of accidental interference. Blue Endeavour was put back to second place.

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