Racing: Clan Royal's National plot ready to be hatched

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For the masses, the Grand National is the barometer of the racing season, the single contest which shapes general attitude to the sport of kings. And seldom before has racing needed a glorious National.

The turf game finds itself in rare trouble. Racing's premier shop window, the Attheraces satellite channel, has recently disappeared from our screens at the same time that a rash of misdemeanours from jockeys and owners have fuelled outside perception that the sport is inherently crooked.

The Grand National, the event with the capacity to inspire or appal, is now charged with the task of salvaging racing. It is a considerable burden for the 157th running of the great race.

The omens thus far are good. The Foxhunters' on the opening day, the first race over the big fences, passed relatively quietly. Yesterday's Topham Chase was considerably more dramatic, yet all the participants returned without serious injury.

Now a maximum field of 40 tests itself over four and a half miles and the most hostile obstacles the old game provides, the brooks of Becher's and Valentine's, the monstrous Chair.

It is, in all honesty, not the classiest of Nationals, but that does not mean it does not possess the potential to be one of the best. It is perhaps the most open running of recent times and the favourite, whose identity will probably not finally become clear until the starter's rostrum is occupied, could well go off at 10-1.

What is more certain is that this will be the biggest sports betting day ever. Coupled with the FA Cup semi-final today at Villa Park, Aintree will help generate around £200m in staked money across the betting industry.

Encouraged by recent results - they have won three of the last five runnings - the Irish have returned here by the busload. Exactly a quarter of the field represents the travellers from across the Irish Sea, including last year's victor, Monty's Pass.

Monty's El Alamein here 12 months ago was a clean operation. Second was his slipstream. However, it was a success which impressed no one more than the handicapper, who has chosen to saddle the returning hero with 11st 10lb.

If Monty's Pass won it would be the most impressive weight-carrying performance for over 25 years. That is his crushing assignment.

"I still think Monty's Pass will run a very big race," Jimmy Mangan, his trainer, said yesterday. "He loves Liverpool and you know what they say about horses for courses. I would recommend a little each-way bet on him as I'm expecting him to be in the frame."

Indeed, a general rule of thumb for springtime on Merseyside is to concentrate on the lower-weighted horses. A total of 21 of the last 25 winners have carried less than 11st. This is a statistic which apparently punctures the aspirations of the only other previous winner in the field, Bindaree.

Another horse comfortable in these surroundings is Amberleigh House, last year's third and a horse with a long-proven record over the mountainous spruces. The length that seems to matter these days though is that of his tooth. At the age of 12, the gelding representing Red Rum's trainer, Donald McCain, falls outside the accepted age range for a National winner.

A similar remark, if at the other end of the scale, applies to Jurancon II, who can at least rely on the formidable cornermen of jockey Tony McCoy and trainer Martin Pipe. The ex-French horse is just seven, ostensibly too callow for a commission this demanding.

Jurancon II's position near the head of the market owes itself largely to his latest run at Haydock. If the handicapper had been allowed another go in the aftermath of that the young horse would be carrying a stone more. Second that day, at an admittedly respectful distance, was Bear On Board, who has compiled increasingly solid form this season, built largely on dependable jumping. He looks shining place material.

So what about the head of the field? This is where another National trend will have to be debunked, the one which suggests a winner must have enjoyed a relatively recent run. For the last 52 years the horse which has earned the garlands has had a prep race after the turn of the year. This fact seemingly rules out the Jonjo O'Neill-trained pairing of Joss Naylor and Clan Royal, both of whom have run just once this season, both in November.

That policy, however, all looks like part of a protection racket, protection from racecourse exertion and, most significantly, from the attention of the handicapper. The sting awaits.

Joss Naylor almost certainly met a mightily well handicapped horse when beaten by Strong Flow in the Hennessy and the only cross in his boxes is the likely lively ground today.

There is no such mark over Clan Royal, who also has the added ingredient of having serial form around Aintree, most recently when he won the Becher Chase. Previously he won the Topham Trophy over the National fences at this meeting 12 months ago, which is probably about the time this little Easter plan went into incubation.

Now it is time for the hatching. The money which poured on to the nine-year-old earlier this week suggested that the wheel had been turned on owner JP McManus's Geneva vaults. It was the final indicator.

Now that the family racing needs rescuing it seems rather appropriate that the act should be accomplished by Clan Royal (nap 3.45).

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