Racing: Lane on track for Aintree

Cheltenham countdown: Defeat fails to dim Balding's Grand National hopes while McCoy breaks his own record
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The Independent Online

Ian Balding's quest to join a fairly exclusive club is still alive, despite the defeat of Moor Lane, Grand National favourite at the start of the day, in his final big-race trial at Newbury yesterday. The 10-year-old went under by two lengths to Lordberniebouffant in the Sodexho Prestige Chase and, though he has relinquished his place at the head of the market, he is still on course for Aintree. The new favourite in most bookmakers' lists is Alexander Banquet at 12-1, with Moor Lane out to around 16-1 third choice.

The minus points about his performance were that his jumping was at times sketchy, though he never looked like falling, and Norman Williamson had to administer several brisk reminders about the job in hand. On the plus side, Bob Michaelson's gelding stayed on stoutly under his top-weight burden of 12 stone in the closing stages of the three-mile contest and was conceding 18lb to the winner. He will be back on a featherweight 10st at Aintree.

Only four men – George Blackwell, Dick Dawson, Willie Stephenson and Vincent O'Brien – have trained winners of both the Derby and the Grand National, and Balding, 63, with Mill Reef's Epsom victory in 1971 on his CV, would enjoy joining them. He was disappointed in Moor Lane's effort yesterday – the gelding started 7-4 favourite to follow up his impressive success in the Great Yorkshire Chase in January – but not totally despondent. "He ran a funny sort of race," Balding said. "He seemed a bit flat. But we've got plenty of time to freshen him up before Aintree and, though he didn't show much sparkle, it probably wasn't too bad a performance at the weights."

Williamson echoed the trainer's sentiments, saying: "It was only a disappointment in that we thought he'd win today, but I was happy enough otherwise. He wasn't travelling as keenly as he did when I won on him here before and a couple of times he put down when he should have picked up, but he came home well. If it was two weeks to Aintree, you'd be worrying, but there are five weeks to go. And he's an ideal National horse, in that he stays, he jumps, he's careful and he's brave."

Lordberniebouffant, trained by Josh Gifford and ridden by Leighton Aspell, is not entered for Liverpool, but will have the Scottish version as his target.

For Moor Lane to run at Aintree, he needs 25 horses above him in the handicap to be withdrawn, which should not be a problem. But for Skillwise, winner of the day's other National trial, the Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster, things may be more difficult. The 10-year-old is number 114 in the pecking order of the 121 horses remaining in the big race, and the likelihood of his lining up is remote.

"If he got in, though, he'd definitely run," said trainer Tim Easterby. "He loves jumping and he'd jump round there for fun."

Skillwise was ridden most capably by young conditional jockey David O'Meara to defeat another National entry, Samuel Wilderspin, who was giving him 19lb. Easterby added: "David came to us last year to ride the Flat horses at home as a summer job. We said he'd have to prove himself before we'd let him near our jumpers. I think you can take it he did."

At the other end of the ability scale, the phenomenal Tony McCoy rode into the record books at Huntingdon with a treble on Jonjo O'Neill-trained horses. He equalled his own previous seasonal best of 253 on Shamawan, set a new mark on Firetree and completed a good day's work on Master Tern. The Ulsterman is now just 14 short of the all-time domestic record for a season held by Sir Gordon Richards, who notched 269 Flat winners in 1947.

There was a reminder at Lingfield that, although the Cheltenham and Aintree festivals, the twin peaks of the jump year, are imminent, so is the start of the Flat season proper. In running away with the Dubai Trial Stakes, Compton Dragon, trained by Gerard Butler, earned his ticket to take on the best. The Woodman colt, who quickened impressively for an eased-down three-and-a-half length defeat of Liberty Royal, will next be seen in the Craven Stakes at Newmarket next month.