Racing: Hedgehunter to rule over fences

The Grand National: Favourite has credentials to fulfil Hemmings' 34-year ambition
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The Independent Online

It is popularly supposed that money can buy neither happiness nor love. It would seem unlimited purchasing power will not, as far as the Grand National is concerned anyway, guarantee one more vital element to success. "You can have a horse that jumps, a horse that stays," says Willie Mullins, the trainer of Hedgehunter, favourite for Saturday's 158th running of the Aintree showpiece, "but for a race like this one, you need luck too."

It is popularly supposed that money can buy neither happiness nor love. It would seem unlimited purchasing power will not, as far as the Grand National is concerned anyway, guarantee one more vital element to success. "You can have a horse that jumps, a horse that stays," says Willie Mullins, the trainer of Hedgehunter, favourite for Saturday's 158th running of the Aintree showpiece, "but for a race like this one, you need luck too."

Hedgehunter, certainly, seems to have all the quantifiable assets. As well as the ability to leap large obstacles nimbly, he has stamina, soundness and determination, has had an ideal preparation and will have one of the best of horsemen, Ruby Walsh, in the saddle. The ticks are in all the boxes, bar one.

For the greatest barrier to success may not be Becher's Brook but the silks on Walsh's back, the green, yellow and white colours of Trevor Hemmings. The Lancashire-born, Channel Islands-based near-billionaire's ambition has been to win a Grand National since one of his business mentors, Fred Pontin, did so with Specify in 1971. But the man who started his working life as a bricklayer's apprentice and now has a finger in so many commercial pies that he is worth an estimated £700 million, with assets that include the Blackpool Tower, has found that a fortune in the bank is one thing, fortune on the racecourse quite another.

In the past five years he has mounted a determined attack on the great Aintree prize. But his only finisher from 12 runners has been Southern Star, who came in last two years ago. Grimly, two of his horses have been killed in the race - Goguenard, who shattered a hind leg in a freak incident when hit from behind by another runner, and The Last Fling, who broke his neck at the Canal Turn - and another, Young Kenny, a leading fancy at the time, broke a leg in his final prep.

Two, poor Goguenard and Artic Jack, came down at the first; Beau tripped on the flat and unseated his rider; and Hedgehunter himself fell at the last 12 months ago when in line for a place.

The idea of a jinx may be fanciful, but consider the case of Ambrose Clark. During the interwar era, the heir to the considerable Singer sewing- machine fortune was one of many Anglophile Americans to have a tilt at Britain's great jumping prizes. Others succeeded, but not he. In a bid to turn his luck, he sold his best horse, Kellsboro' Jack, to his wife Floss, to carry her colours, for a nominal £1. And the gelding promptly won the 1933 Grand National.

But Aintree gremlins or no, Saturday may be payback time for Hemmings. His nine-year-old has been prepared meticulously and although some cunning plans tend not to come to fruition, Mullins is more of a Blackadder than a Baldrick when it comes to guile. Hedgehunter was campaigned over hurdles in his first five runs this season and then, his chasing handicap mark protected, emerged over fences at Fairyhouse in February to score a convincing victory from Pizarro, his first Graded win.

At Aintree last year, he had led his rivals a thrilling dance until his exhausted fall but, although he is an impulsive type who enjoys bowling along, he is becoming more amenable with maturity and his energies will be more conservatively deployed this time.

There is a point of view that holds that every event, from the spin of a coin to something as complex and many-faceted as a horse race, is a stand-alone, not dependent on anything that has happened in the past or may occur in the future. There is another theory that sequences and patterns exist, that life is not governed by random chance or luck.

In racing, trends do seem to exist, and as far as the National is concerned, there are 157 years of information to digest. If it is any comfort to Hemmings and Mullins, statistics are on their side as well as, perhaps, natural justice.

In the past 10 years 366 horses have contested the National. Three nine-year-olds have won (Lord Gyllene, Bobbyjo and Papillon); three 10-year-olds (Rough Quest, Earth Summit and Monty's Pass); two 12-year-olds (Royal Athlete and Amberleigh House); and one eight-year-old (Bindaree).

Ten-year-olds have margin-ally the best win-to-run record: 88 have taken part, which means that 24 per cent of the population have produced a 33 per cent strike rate. The 97 nine-year-olds are also ahead of the game (26 per cent with a 33 per cent strike rate) and are overwhelmingly the best bet for each-way punters, having claimed 16 (40 per cent) of the 40 places available. Eleven-year-olds have the next best success rate in this department.

In terms of proportional representation in the first four places, the ones to do better than they ought are Irish-trained and Irish-bred horses and greys, though none of that colour has won since 1961. French-breds have a poor record, and no French-trained horse has won since 1867. National winners tend to carry 10-stone something; none has won with 11st or more since Rhyme 'n' Reason in 1988. Despite the race's reputation as a lottery, fancied horses tend to do well.

Hedgehunter, a no-nonsense favourite for the John Smith's-sponsored prize, can end 34 years of dreaming for his owner. The dangers may be Royal Auclair, a good fourth in the Gold Cup, well-handicapped veteran First Gold and course specialist Forest Gunner, with Ballycassidy the best longshot.

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Four who need Lady Luck's tap on the shoulder

Jonjo O'Neill

Jonjo O'Neill, a dual champion as a jockey, not only never won a Grand National in the saddle but never completed the course, not even on the Gold Cup winner Alverton, who was going easily when he fell and broke his neck after being unsighted at the second Becher's. In his second career, O'Neill has had three runners and was arguably deprived of victory last year when Liam Cooper lost his whip on the eventual runner-up, Clan Royal.

Paul Nicholls

In 23 shots at the target, trainer Paul Nicholls has yet to saddle a finisher. Escartefigue nearly got round five years ago, but unseated at the last; Nicholls' unluckiest loser was Ad Hoc three years ago, who was running strongly when he tripped over a faller three out. In 1999, much-fancied Double Thriller fell, for the only time in his life, at the first, and a fine effort from outsider Torduff Express two years ago was thwarted by a slipped saddle.

Tony McCoy

Many a top-class jockey retires without having won a National - Peter Scudamore and John Francome, to name but two - but that statistic will not be acceptable to the nine-times champion Tony McCoy, who has been on the floor more often than not in nine rides. His only completions have been two thirds on Blowing Wind, who was going best of all of the five second-circuit survivors in 2001 when taken out by a loose horse.

David Johnson

Few owners have invested more in jump racing than David Johnson, but Aintree has not been a happy hunting ground, despite Cyfor Malta's spectacular win over the Grand National fences in 1998. A year later he lost Eudipe, who was killed at Becher's the first time he ever fell, and Gris d'Estruval at the meeting. His first to complete the National from eight runners was Lord Atterbury, third last year.

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