Racing: Clan Royal provokes National fervour

As a boy, JP McManus first learned about the race when Mr What won in 1958, and a man employed by his father did not show up for work for the next fortnight. If Tony McCoy were to win the John Smith's Grand National this year, wearing the green and gold silks of McManus on Clan Royal, the economy may have to absorb a pandemic of such disappearances.

When the weights for the 159th running were published yesterday, bookmakers unanimously identified Clan Royal as the outstanding candidate among the 144 still in the hat. Only the top 40 declared will get into the race on 8 April, but Clan Royal could hardly be perched more conveniently than on 10st 8lb, 39th in the handicap. That is 3lb less than he carried last year, when he fell victim to one of Aintree's more diabolical misadventures.

Clan Royal was still tanking along in the lead approaching Becher's Brook for the second time, five lengths clear, when a loose horse decided not to jump the fence and took an abrupt left turn, dragging him across the course into the rails. McCoy ballooned into the air, rolled off the track and watched in despair as the rest of the field trampled across his dreams.

The National was already a source of torment to McCoy, whose record in the race remains pedestrian - often literally so, as he has come back on foot more often than not. It can scarcely have helped that the race was instead won, for a second time in just five attempts, by Ruby Walsh on Hedgehunter.

Though no jump jockey has ever accumulated winners as relentlessly as McCoy, he knows that many would favour Walsh in the crucible of the biggest races. Indeed, it might be argued that he was giving Clan Royal himself too much of a "midweek" ride, lit up in the lead with a circuit still to run. Walsh, in contrast, pulled Hedgehunter back from a handy position passing the stands because he was worried about a pair of loose horses weaving in front of him.

As the trainer of Clan Royal conceded yesterday, it is impossible to know whether Clan Royal would have lasted home. "He was a bit too fresh, maybe, and AP was a bit too fresh as well," Jonjo O'Neill said. "Ideally, you would want to hang on to him a bit longer, of course you would. But on the other hand we knew that all he does is stay. I'll leave it to AP again. This isn't a quick horse, basically he's a slogger. There will be a lot of horses at Aintree with more class, more gears than him. But we know he enjoys Aintree, and he has a good weight."

Many of the most purposeful Aintree preparations in recent years have been over hurdles, and that is how O'Neill has kept Clan Royal's light under a bushel this winter. He intends to give him one more run around three weeks before the race, to release any undue fizz, and that may well be over fences. "It doesn't matter now," he grinned. "The job's done!"

His tempting weight means that Clan Royal is already as short as 6-1 favourite with one firm, though Ladbrokes offer 8-1. His nearest rival in the betting is Hedgehunter, who has been allocated 11st 10lb - 9lb more than he carried last year - along with the eventual runner-up, Royal Auclair. Hedgehunter was still cruising after jumping the final fence, and sprinted 14 lengths clear. It remains to be seen if the horse can retrieve that form, because he looked very ragged on the run-in when trounced by Beef Or Salmon at Leopardstown on Sunday.

That night, Hedgehunter did not eat up but that is perfectly normal after a hard race. "He's sound and he's back on his grub now," Willie Mullins, his trainer, said. "I thought he ran OK, but I was hoping for a bit more improvement. Maybe it will come in April instead of February. I don't yet know if he will run in the Gold Cup first, we have a lot of talking to do over the next week or so. He does have a lot of weight in the National, and history shows that the topweights do not have a good record, but then he does jump so well round Aintree."

Another previous winner, Amberleigh House, will be trying to become the oldest winner at 14 and Ginger McCain - who can for the first time in his life be described as a retiring trainer - will also run Ebony Light in his quest for an unprecedented fifth National.

At the moment, he shares the record of four with Fred Rimell. "I couldn't walk in his shadow as a trainer," McCain said. "But breaking records doesn't impress me. All I care about is that I am going there for the last time with two cracking chances and Aintree, being Aintree, will always come up with a bit of magic."

* Robert Alner (Sir Rembrandt 10st 13lb) said: "That sounds nice thank you very much. He is well handicapped to be honest. That's a winnable weight. Obvious-ly we are aiming for the Cheltenham Gold Cup first so we'll have to wait and see. We'll take it one step at a time but the National option is there and that's what we'd be thinking of."

Chris McGrath

Nap: Rubberdubber

(Leicester 3.10)

NB: First Cry

(Musselburgh 3.00)

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