It used to be thought that you needed a horse with idiosyncratic qualities for this unique test, a gung-ho jumper with a light weight and a proven aptitude for the fences. In that respect, Clan Royal is a real old-fashioned type. He could walk into any National of the Seventies and line up as favourite with no questions asked.
Strange to relate, his runaway success in the race last year does not qualify Hedgehunter for the support of traditionalists, who would argue that he now has too much weight. He instead finds favour with the alternative school, which argues that the National is no longer such an extreme examination, but a race increasingly amenable to the same interpretation as any other top-class handicap. Tamer fences and inflated prize-money have compressed the weights so that all 40 runners are once again well inside the handicap. And Hedgehunter, despite topweight, is officially 10lb "well in" after finishing second in the Gold Cup since the weights were published.
Both approaches have some validity, and nowadays it would seem that their respective relevance is determined by the going. Testing conditions would certainly restore the sort of brutish priorities that applied just six years ago, when only two horses completed without mishap. But the ground today is likely to be fairly neutral and that means that the race must be approached without prejudice.
Clan Royal has won two races over these fences already and suffered grotesque misfortune last year, carried out by a loose horse at Becher's second time. He had been half-a-dozen lengths clear and still tanking along, so many assume that he would have taken a lot of beating from there.
But he is such an energetic type that it might not pay to be too charitable. He had again been considered unlucky when Liam Cooper lost his whip the previous year, but he could hardly have been made to go any faster when, exhausted on the run-in, he was collared by Amberleigh House. His handicap mark has been protected by a campaign over hurdles, but the bottom line remains that he could not win that race off a 6lb lower mark.
Hedgehunter meanwhile runs off a rating 12lb higher than last year. He won so easily that it is hard to believe his Gold Cup run represented a genuine improvement. The fact that he would carry another 10lb if the handicapper could start again could be something of a red herring, and there may be a far more significant legacy of his run at Cheltenham. For it is not possible to run so well in a Gold Cup without making a very generous effort, and Hedgehunter may not be the type to soak up two hard races in a row. Any more rain would count against him, too.
These reservations about the favourites make it necessary to prowl through the other 38 runners, though it must be said that a lot of flotsam and jetsam have floated into the line-up. Nor do many of the more legitimate candidates stand closer inspection. Innox will be fresh after sitting out Cheltenham, but he faded tamely after running well for a long way last year and seems to reserve his most purposeful efforts for Tony McCoy.
Lord Of Illusion is a spectacular jumper on faster ground, and could yet prove better than his present rating. But he did disappoint in the Gold Cup. Sir Oj has one of the best Aintree riders in history but he, too, must put a poor run at Cheltenham behind him and his stamina remains unproven. Garvivonnian won over these fences in November but only scrambled home.
Cornish Rebel undoubtedly has the talent, but is liable to sulk if making one of his customary blunders. But Joes Edge, who beat him in the Scottish National as a novice, has been trained for the race and could certainly go well. And the Irish National winner, Numbersixvalverde, also has a plausible look - though more rain might be ideal.
On the other hand, his Fairyhouse victim, Jack High, went on to win the Betfred Gold Cup at Sandown on spring ground and looked an obvious Aintree type in the process. It was only the stiff finish there brought his stamina into play and he remains unexposed at extreme distances, having since mixed hurdle races with the odd spin behind Beef Or Salmon in races where he had no chance at the weights.
Jack High has plenty of experience, but is entitled to improve over the longest trip he has tackled. Off just 10st 7lb, he receives 19lb from Hedgehunter, and he proved himself a reliable jumper over the notoriously tricky fences at Sandown. All in all, he has plenty in his favour and looks a fair price each-way at the generally available 12-1.
His trainer has won several of the most coveted races in the calendar - including this one, with Papillon in 2000 - from a small team of horses and can be relied upon to have JACK HIGH (nap 4.15) at his very best today.
1 Jack High (nap) 2 Joes Edge 3 Lord Of Illusion 4 NumbersixvalverdeReuse content