Papillon looks ready to give rivals the slip

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They come from Norway and France for this afternoon's Grand National, they come from all over Britain and, perhaps most significantly, they arrive in number and quality from Ireland.

They come from Norway and France for this afternoon's Grand National, they come from all over Britain and, perhaps most significantly, they arrive in number and quality from Ireland.

If those over the water had developed an inferiority complex about the world's most celebrated jumps race it was a sensation which exploded 12 months ago when Bobbyjo took the prize back to Co Meath. It was Ireland's first victory over the Aintree spruce mountains for 24 years.

Now the hordes have been activated. Seven Irish horses will shuffle up to the tapes this afternoon, including the title-holder and Micko's Dream, the best-backed horse in the run-up to the race.

Bobbyjo has again undertaken a preparation apparently drafted in the asylum. He has warmed up for the most daunting fences in this realm by contesting three handicap hurdles. It has, however, been a sensible madness, a near repetition of the programme Bobbyjo has followed in previous seasons before success here and in the Irish National. The 10-year-old, who represents the father and son partnership of Tommy and Paul Carberry, has been penalised for last year's success, but then he did win by 10 lengths.

Merry People could have finished second for the Co Waterford trainer John Queally last year had he not taken a tumble over the second last. He has a considerable weight advantage with Bobbyjo both on that run and in a Leopardstown hurdle last month.

Most compelling of all among the qualifying papers filed that day, however, was the one from Papillon. He beat some National aspirants despite carrying a monster weight. On that form, and the 1998 Irish Grand National, from which he is 16lb better off for a half length beating by Bobbyjo, he should lap his compatriot today. If he does win it would establish a family pattern, as Papillon too represents an Irish father and son partnership, that of Ted and Ruby Walsh, the Irish champion jockey who today will be having his first ride in the National.

Papillon may not have the ideal name to be tested on the destructive wheel of Aintree, but there are more relevant factors in his favour. "He's well handicapped on his best form, especially if you go back to the Irish National and I think he's in good nick," Ted Walsh said yesterday. "He ran a great race at Leopardstown in front of Bobbyjo and Merry People while giving them a lot of weight.

"You could describe him as a monkey, but this is a funny place and it can bring out the best in horses like that. He'll love the ground and Ruby is mad looking forward to the ride."

It has not been easy to determine the exact state of the ground this week. A straw poll of jockeys described the terrain variously as: good, lovely, goodish, good to firm, on the fast side of good. The official statement was good with good to firm patches yesterday, with watering likely after racing.

The maximum field will not, therefore, be slowed greatly and organisers are likely to be watching the stampede to the first through splayed fingers. It should be fast, and it should be an encounter for the doughty.

Young Kenny, the Yorkshire-trained top-weight, will not appreciate the drying ground and may still be withdrawn after his trainer has walked the course this morning, but he will certainly not fail for stamina. He has won marathons before, though his consistency seems to be dwindling. "He's a big, scopey jumper and his main attribute is his staying power," Brendan Powell, at 39 the oldest rider in the race, said. "He's an out-and-out stayer, but he's got that bit of class as well, which you can't say about a lot of the horses in there. It's a competitive Grand National, but an ordinary enough race this year with no class horse to stand out.

"He can be very lazy but the one thing this horse does is try. You certainly can't describe a horse that's done what he's done as moody."

The shortest-priced of the hosts is likely to be Star Traveller, who became favourite for the National based on his close third to Marlborough and Beau in the National Hunt Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. He travels from his Shropshire yard with the going on his side, but perhaps peak condition against him. Cheltenham was his day, and he was only confirmed for this afterthought in the aftermath of the Festival.

One to turn pennies into pounds is the generously priced Mely Moss, who would now be in penury if he was paid on an hourly rate. Charlie Egerton's representative was second over the green walls here 12 months ago in the Fox Hunters', his first race for two years. He has run just once since, in victory at Cheltenham last April. Mely Moss has been out with a politically correct pack recently, hunting with the Berks and Bucks Draghounds. "He is a Liverpool horse and is blooming in himself," Egerton said. "There is only one Grand National and I have had Liverpool in mind for him for some time."

The line-up will be confirmed this morning, with announcements on whether the ground has give enough for Red Marauder and whether Mick Fitzgerald and Norman Williamson are fit to ride. The biggest worry on the verge of the 153rd National, though, should be about getting the biggest price on an Irish horse. It is appropriate that the flutter should be on Papillon (nap 3.45).