Racing: Clan Royal elevated from sicklist to National favourite

It might seem a long way from the flunkied Savoy Hotel in London WC2 to the spit and blood of shabby Aintree, but not for nothing is the Grand National the greatest of long- distance races.

It might seem a long way from the flunkied Savoy Hotel in London WC2 to the spit and blood of shabby Aintree, but not for nothing is the Grand National the greatest of long- distance races.

In sight of Cleopatra's Needle yesterday, the pointed detail of the lead to be carried on 9 April was announced. When the smoke had cleared, from the succulent roast lamb in the kitchen, the general impression seemed to be that Clan Royal, the runner-up last April, deserved to be the favourite.

On the form book this might well have been correct, but the medical tome tells us that Clan Royal, and the whole of the Jonjo O'Neill string, are still virtually on drips. Like all at Jackdaws Castle, Clan Royal has had a thermometer in his mouth since Christmas, and those jumping into the 12-1 available are also leaping with their faith.

"The plan is to be there and hopefully we will get a run into him before then," O'Neill said rather unconvincingly. "That's what I'd really like to do but we'll just have to wait and see.

"If we can get him there in the right form then he can run a big race, but that is the big ask. He'll be fresh enough but the question is whether he'll be fit enough.

"We're still none the wiser as to what the problem is. It's been a right pain in the neck. But I'm lucky to have supportive owners who have told me to take time and get it right and that's what we're doing.

"The signs are that things might be improving but we'll just keep waiting and please God they'll come right again before long. They're cantering away and we'll have to start soon. It's been frustrating but you can't cut corners with these things."

A record 92 horses are in the National handicap proper, all but ensuring that no horse in the final field of 40 will be racing from out of the weights. It should be a no-nonsense National - appropriately considering the new sponsors. Martell have bowed out and a different liquor is in its place, John Smith's, the company which made the Magnet Cup at York one of the most rollicking days in the calendar.

The first seven from last year's marathon are entered, also three previous winners, all of which would provide trumpeting cherubs on the script of their romantic stories. Yet if there is to be an outstanding line to this year's National it would be provided by a horse called Forest Gunner, little known to the punter in the street now but a beast which could have plenty of the nation's shillings being pushed across the counter.

Forest Gunner already has a Liverpool pedigree, having captured the Foxhunters' Chase last spring. His, though, was considered to be the less significant of contributions, as his partner in grime was Carrie Ford, the amateur rider married to the gelding's trainer, Richard. Perhaps most significant was the couple's daughter, Hannah, who had been born just 10 weeks earlier. Hannah's new mum retired on the spot.

It is a story of much saccharine already, but the icing could yet come as Carrie Ford announced yesterday she is to reapply for her riding licence to allow her to race at Aintree again.

"The thing is we might never have a better chance to win the race," Richard Ford said. "The handicapper has only put him up 1lb for winning and he's got a nice-looking weight on 10st 4lb.

"There's a lot more prizemoney for the National too, but if it came up soft then that would be a big factor against. It's a long way away, but if we go for the National then Carrie will ride and if we go for the Topham we would use Peter Buchanan, if he was fit and available."

Mrs Ford admitted that only the prospect of riding Forest Gunner in the world's most famous jumps race could have persuaded her to take out her licence again. "I'm booked in for my concussion test and we'll take it from there," she said. "He will have an entry in the Topham in case it came up very soft but the owners are very keen to run in the big race."

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