The one job you did not want yesterday was to be the handicapper at the official launching of the Grand National weights, to be the single source of cataclysmic information over the smoked salmon and lamb loin at the Landmark Hotel on London's Marylebone Road.
It was hard-hat territory once again for Phil Smith in NW1, and most of the trainers bussed in from Britain, Ireland and France had few kind words for the former teacher over the Martell which will be splashed over the National for the last time on 3 April. Smith, and this is an annual cry, must try harder, according to the majority directly involved in the Aintree marathon.
First the facts. Monty's Pass and Bindaree, the last two National winners, are back for another fix. The top weight is the classy First Gold, but his participation will be moulded by the 11-year-old's performance in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. As there is only two weeks and two days between the Blue Riband and Aintree this year, it appears First Gold will have to win in the Cotswolds pulling a laden beer dray to become even a consideration for the big double.
"I think the way he runs in the Gold Cup will give me an idea,'' François Doumen, the Chantilly trainer, said yesterday. Doumen still harbours the dream, however, the one achieved by Tommy and Paul Carberry with Bobbyjo in 1999 and Ted and Ruby Walsh with Papillon in 2000. It may be that the less vaunted Kelami, off 10st 4lb, is the vehicle, however. "They won with a father and son and that would be my dream," Doumen added.
It is not unreasonable to assume the National trophy will, once again, be fit for transport. After a long barren run the Irish are certainly on a roll, having won three of the last five runnings. The ante-post lists suggest the trend is going to continue with the Hibernian grouping of Hedgehunter, Rince Ri, Davids Lad and Monty's Pass, the victor 12 months ago, at the summit of the betting.
Monty's Pass will be involved in a different game a year on. This time he will have 11st 7lb to hump. "I thought I would be a bit lighter,'' Jimmy Mangan, the lightly stunned trainer, said. "It's a big weight against class horses. I'm a bit close to those at the top [First Gold and Rince Ri]. But the main thing is to get there in good form. He is in great form and he'll be having a run [over hurdles] in a few weeks."
The bearded wonder of Mike Futter, Monty's Pass's main owner, collected an estimated near £1m in various National bets last year and is setting about another killing in April. On this occasion, though, he favours other horses. The early bets are £5,000 each-way on Be My Manager and £10,000 each-way on Hedgehunter. "Horses don't win the National carrying weights of more than 11st unless they are Red Rum,'' Futter said.
Then there was the combative stuff, Ginger McCain, who has variously referred to the handicapper as a mad bastard or a bollocks on such occasions, was actually fairly restrained yesterday. He said Amberleigh House would win, but we have grown to be wary of such pronouncements post Red Rum. The proper fiery stuff came from Nigel Twiston-Davies and, unsurprisingly, Harvey Smith. The latter was not there, fortunately for his handicapping namesake. Twiston-Davies would have retired two years ago if Bindaree had not been successful. He now believes Smith should carry through a similar threat. "A weight of 11st is very high for Bindaree,'' the Naunton trainer said. "The handicapper is a lunatic."
Harvey agreed. "Artic Jack [on 11st 4lb] has been weighted out of the job," he said. "Nothing above 11st can win the National and they weight the good horses out. He's put our horse in 8lb behind First Gold, well what a load of rubbish. He's out of order.
"With 11st 4lb you'd be better off taking on the Gold Cup horses on levels. Over four and a half miles in heavy ground, weight counts double. I would say Artic Jack won't run because he can't win it with 11st 4lb. If Ardent Scout's in on 10st he'll nearly win it. He'll have another couple of runs before the National and he'll be in flying order."