Racing: Irish tighten grip on National market

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The Independent Online

A total of 61 horses were yesterday left in the Grand National, which takes place at Aintree on Saturday. A similar number of dreams remain.

The great Liverpool desire has become tangible after many barren years in recent times for Irish trainers and the travellers have now won three of the last five Nationals. The markets suggest the trend is about to continue.

Timbera, for Dessie Hughes, and Willie Mullins's Hedgehunter, are now locked matrimonially at the head of the lists. Monty's Pass, the winner for Jimmy Mangan 12 months ago, is not far behind, holding the train.

Ireland seems about to field a quarter of the 40-strong maximum field. "We have a strong challenge numbers-wise, I suppose," Hughes said yesterday. "Hedgehunter is a very good horse who has proven himself, but I'm just interested in our horse.

"Timbera put up a good performance [in victory] in the Irish National last season. His preparation has been perfect. He's only had three runs this season, because Saturday's race has been his main objective since he won at Fairyhouse. He's a good jumper and he'll get the trip, and after that he'll need a bit of luck. He's a big, brave horse and is strong - unless you have that type of horse, you have no business being in the National."

Hedgehunter too has trekking form to his name, a fourth in the Hennessy Gold Cup, a third in the Welsh National and, most persuasively, success in the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park in January. It is form to lead the market, yet if the eight-year-old does so his trainer will not see it positively.

"I don't know how many favourites win the National but I think it is very few," Mullins said. "It would be great to get around. He jumps well and seems in good form, so we will take our chances. Our guy's method of jumping will be a big help. Hedgehunter was well named. When he sees something he pricks his ears and goes for it. I'm more worried about the weight of the fences than the weight he has to carry, though I think he has enough weight for what he has achieved."

Jimmy Mangan's world has been spinning a lot more swiftly since National victory was visited on his small Conna yard in Co Cork last year. "I never thought I'd have a horse good enough for a race like the National - never mind good enough to win one. Life hasn't been the same since," he said yesterday.

Now, when Langan looks to the heavens, he is looking for the lightning to come again. If it is not accompanied by bad weather, he believes Monty's Pass has another grand opportunity. "The Irish have a strong team on paper again this year," he said. "Timbera must have a chance - he has no weight and Jim Culloty turning down Henrietta Knight [trainer of Souther Star] to ride him looks to me to be a tip in itself. But he will need soft ground and so will Hedgehunter.

"The key is the drying ground with Monty's Pass. He has got a lot of weight, but it wouldn't matter if he has only nine stone on his back, if the ground wasn't right, he would have no chance. He'll handle the weight all right, especially round Aintree - he loves it there, just like Red Rum did."

Monty's Pass apart, the only other previous winnner in the race is Bindaree, the victor two years ago. Clouds of pessimism have not gathered over the yard of his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, either. The Naunton-based man has little historical leeway for self-doubt in the National. He also won it with Earth Summit in 1998.

"Bindaree seems to be the forgotten horse in the National betting and I can't understand why, because I've never had him better," Twiston-Davies said yesterday. "He came right back to his best at Chepstow, where he beat a high-class horse in Sir Rembrandt, but had a little hiccup at Warwick, which I'm pleased to say he's over.

"Carl [Llewellyn] rode him in a piece of work last week and we were both over the moon with the horse. He knows his way round there, jumps those fences for fun and goes into the race with as good a chance as ever before."

GRAND NATIONAL: Latest odds (Tote): 8-1 Timbera; 10-1 Hedgehunter, Jurancon II; 12-1 Clan Royal, Joss Naylor; 16-1 Bear on Board, Bindaree; 18-1 Amberleigh House; 20-1 Davids Lad, Shardam; 22-1 Gunner Welburn, Monty's Pass; 25-1 First Gold, Takagi; 28-1 Artic Jack, Southern Star; 33-1 Iznogoud, Le Coudray, Lord Atterbury, Tyneandtyneagain, What's Up Boys; 40-1 and upwards others