Aintree has never been kind to John Queally. In three attempts to complete in the Grand National as a rider, he hit the turf twice and pulled up once. Then, 12 months ago, Merry People, his first runner as a trainer in Britain, let alone in the world's greatest steeplechase, galloped towards the second-last fence in the leading bunch and apparently going as well as anything. Rare indeed is the horse who survives 28 fences at Aintree and then falls at the 29th. A few seconds later, Merry People was that horse.
Merry People had been well behind for much of the race, and his sudden appearance at the shoulders of the leaders, with his jockey looking almost confident, sent punters everywhere scrambling for newspapers as they muttered: what's that thing in red? This was not, after all, what 200-1 chances are supposed to do.
Even as he fell, many will have made a mental note to look out for him next year, but 12 months, it seems, is long enough for most of them to have forgotten Merry People. Though he will not start at 200-1 again this Saturday, there is still 50-1 available with William Hill.
This is despite the fact that in this year's National, Queally's chaser will effectively race off a 15lb lower mark than he did in 1999, and is just 5lb out of the handicap, compared to 21lb last year.
It could prove to be a serious oversight, for each-way punters at least. Merry People is a confirmed fast-ground performer, who appears to have the weather forecast in his favour too, and Queally, who trains "10 or 12 horses for a few pals" in Co Waterford, is not travelling to Liverpool merely to make up the numbers.
"I was surprised but not shocked at the way he ran last year," the trainer said yesterday. "I'd always said that if he adapted to the race and jumped the first couple, he'd run a nice race. He probably shouldn't have been a 200-1 chance anyway, because he had some good bits of form, and he had good ground, which is the key to him."
The "good bits" include a distant second to Dorans Pride in November 1998, and victory in the Denny Gold Medal Chase, a Grade Three event, at Tralee three months earlier. In recent seasons, however, it must be said that the bad bits are very much in the majority.
"I prepared him just for the National last year as well," Queally says. "He's inclined to detach himself a little early on, and I think he landed a little steep over a couple and frightened himself a bit. But he seemed to decide that he liked it as he went on, and his jumping got better. It was just unfortunate that when he did get to like the place he caught the second-last."
Merry People's preparation this year has closely resembled that of Bobbyjo, the National winner 12 months ago. When Bobbyjo finished fifth in a handicap hurdle at Leopardstown last month, he attracted all the attention. One place further back, however - and giving Bobbyjo 8lb to boot - was none other than Merry People.
"I was very pleased with that run, and if he jumps the first three, he'll run a really big race," Queally says. "The ground is very much in his favour and if he stands up he has a real live outside chance.
"But a lot of these horses that fall one year, they come back and they don't like the place. I just hope my fellow is positive rather than negative."
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