Racing: Hedgehunter a fortune hunter

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The Independent Online

The ability to leap large obstacles, stamina, soundness and determination are all qualities that will stand a Grand National contender in good stead. Being well-prepared and well-ridden help too. And Hedgehunter, one of the market leaders for Saturday's 157th renewal of Aintree's showpiece, seems to have all the assets.

The ability to leap large obstacles, stamina, soundness and determination are all qualities that will stand a Grand National contender in good stead. Being well-prepared and well-ridden help too. And Hedgehunter, one of the market leaders for Saturday's 157th renewal of Aintree's showpiece, seems to have all the assets.

But there is one more element in the formula, one that it is difficult to quantify. "You can have a horse that jumps, a horse that stays," said the eight-year-old's trainer, Willie Mullins, "but for a race like this, you need luck as well."

And there's the rub. Hedgehunter carries the colours of Trevor Hemmings, the Lancashire-born, Channel Islands-based half-billionaire whose ambition it has been to win the Aintree showpiece since one of his business mentors, Fred Pontin, did so with Specify in 1971. Hemmings, who started his working life as a bricklayer's apprentice, now has a finger in so many commercial pies that he comes in at number 64 in the latest Sunday Times rich list, worth an estimated £480m, with assets that include Blackpool Tower.

But a fortune in the bank is one thing, fortune at Aintree quite another. Three years ago Hemmings had a leading fancy in Young Kenny, only for the horse to suffer a fatal injury at Haydock in his final prep race. Two years ago the National claimed the life of gallant The Last Fling, who broke his neck at the Canal Turn; and of the two other runners in the yellow, white and green quartered silks, Goguenard fell at the first and much-fancied Beau, purchased just a few days before the race, tripped after jumping the 14th perfectly and unseated his rider. Last year, poor Goguenard broke a hind leg in a freak incident when hit from behind by another runner and Southern Star trailed in last.

Money, it seems, can't buy you luck. But this year may be payback time and to be sure, Mullins is due some too. Last season was a frustrating one for the scion of one of Ireland's most famous racing families: an enforced change of feedstuff after the morphine contamination that led to the still-disputed disqualification of 2002 Hennessy Gold Cup winner Be My Royal, and subsequent juggling with equine diets, meant that the inmates at his yard in Co Carlow were running below par. This term, though, he is currently second in the Irish jump trainers' list, snapping at Noel Meade's heels, and goes to Aintree with a winner at Cheltenham, Rule Supreme in the Royal & SunAlliance Chase, under his belt.

Mullins, 47, has completed the National as neither trainer nor jockey, with two goes in each guise. But the former six-times Irish amateur champion did ride to victory over the big fences, in the Foxhunters 21 years ago on Atha Cliath, trained by his father, Paddy. "To score just once round there was as good as 10 anywhere else," he said.

David Casey will be in the saddle on Hedgehunter, one of the most consistent competitors in this year's field, with three wins and 13 places from 19 runs and form over fences that stands close inspection. His three runs this term have produced a fourth in the Hennessy Gold Cup, a third in the Welsh National and a sparkling display of jumping to win the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park in January, with Rule Supreme third. A reversion to his favoured front-running tactics produced the desired result that day. "He likes to bowl along and enjoy himself," Mullins said. "When he was third at Chepstow, holding him up didn't really work out. He can be nervy and bullish and relaxes better when he's up with the pace."

Hedgehunter has been lately burning up the woodchip round Mullins' famed frying-pan circuit and his trainer will have no truck with the idea that the gelding, whose sire Montelimar was responsible for last year's hero Monty's Pass, may be found wanting on the stamina front. "The Hennessy was his first run of the year and he blew up a bit, and in the Welsh National he was always doing a bit too much in behind horses," he said. "But if you can win three miles round Gowran in the soft, you stay."

The Irish have the best recent record in the National, with three wins in the past five years after a drought of a quarter of a century, and will be mob-handed again. "I think it's the Celtic Tiger thing," said Mullins, who will also field Alexander Banquet, a good second at Fairyhouse before his Gold Cup flop. "We're able to hold on to more good horses."

Despite the elements of chance involved in the National, sometimes it pays to go with the obvious and the best of the home defence is likely to be another of the market leaders, Jurancon, who won the Midlands National last summer and ran a first-class trial for the real thing at Haydock last month. There are pressing human connections: trainer Martin Pipe needs the prize money if he is to win a 14th championship, rider Tony McCoy has yet to win a National in eight attempts and owner David Johnson, another self-made businessman, has yet to have a finisher and has, like Hemmings, experienced the misery of a fatality, Eudipe five years ago.

Others to consider are Shardam, a good second at Cheltenham; last year's Irish National winner Timbera; Clan Royal, a winner over the unique fences on his last two runs; last year's fourth Gunner Welburn and, among the outsiders, Southern Star, who comes to the race a fresher horse than 12 months ago, and Alexander Banquet.

Montgomery's Selections

1 Hedgehunter

2 Timbera

3 Shardam

4 Gunner Welburn

Best Longshot: Southern Star

Aintree storylines Four possible winners with a tale to tell

Guest appearance

For a topical tip, look no further than Red Striker on a day when Manchester United face Arsenal in an FA Cup semi-final. The 10-year-old has yet to appear this season - his last outing was when he lost his jockey in last year's race - but has the right background for a win. He is trained by Richard Guest, who rode his brother Red Marauder to victory three years ago. No full-brothers have won Nationals, though full-sisters Emblem and Emblematic did.

Darren's distraction

Joss Naylor belongs to a gambling owner who is facing the prospect of being barred from racecourses. Darren Mercer has been accused of laying his horse to lose the Welsh National on a betting exchange, contrary to a rule introduced last year, and faces disciplinary proceedings. The Hennessy runner-up was a late withdrawal at Chepstow, and also from a contest at Cheltenham. Three days ago another owner was disqualified by the Jockey Club when similar charges were proven at an inquiry.

Joy for McCoy

Many a top-class jockey retires without having won a National - Peter Scudamore and John Francome to name two - but that will not be acceptable to the 29-year-old eight-times champion Tony McCoy, who has been on the floor in the race as often as not. Of Martin Pipe's runners on Saturday the Ulsterman is likely to be on Jurancon II; others he could chose include Blowing Wind, whose two thirds in 2001 and 2002 mark McCoy's only completions.

The home goal

A precedent has already been set in terms of keeping the prize in-house. Six years ago Earth Summit scored in the colours of Nigel Payne, the Aintree press officer; this time hunterchaser Hermes III runs for the Grand National Racing Club headed by Lord Daresbury, the course's chairman. Daresbury, as Peter Greenall, rode the winner of the 1982 Foxhunters over his famous fences and on Saturday his teenage son Tom takes the mount on the Mick Easterby-trained nine-year-old.