Racing: McManus' gift horse can fulfil National dream

In his unassuming way, JP McManus has made a fortune by eschewing conventional judgements. Yet the stakes can seldom have been higher than now, as he contemplates a literal case of looking a gift horse in the mouth.

McManus so craves a first success in the John Smith's Grand National that his trainers have entered nine of his horses this year. When the weights were published yesterday, however, his principles remained tormented by the one who stood out luminously from the rest.

Six years ago, Christy Roche gave Far From Trouble to McManus as a 50th birthday present. Though he had ridden a Derby winner, Roche had never come across such an immaculate young horse. After a few growing pains, Far From Trouble is now unmistakably flourishing and ended a winter break in arresting fashion over hurdles at Down Royal last week.

He has been set 10st 10lb at Aintree, but after just six steeplechases he retains scope to earn a much higher rating. Yet it is precisely the brevity of his CV that concerns McManus.

"He's only eight, and had problems in his younger days," McManus said after the weights were unveiled. "Christy always tried to protect him, and he's only ever run in two handicaps. Admittedly one was the Galway Plate [which he won] and the other was the Irish National, where he fell five out. I don't want to put anyone off, he's a horse I think a lot of, and he has been trained for a spring-summer campaign.

"But much as I would like him to run, I'm just worried that he lacks experience. If he doesn't have that kind of weight again, then at least he will have the experience. Saying that, he could easily take his chance. We'll play it by ear. Since Christy gave him to me, maybe I should leave the decision to him."

If granted that choice, Roche gives the strong impression he would go to Aintree on 14 April, but for now he is preparing Far From Trouble for a handicap at the Cheltenham Festival.

This conviction that a National horse needs hardening led McManus to identify Hedgehunter as "the one they all have to beat", though he must again carry more weight than any winner since Red Rum in 1974. The runaway 2005 winner will carry 11st 12lb - as he did when chasing home Numbersixvalverde last year.

First, Hedgehunter must make life a little easier for his trainer. Confined to a single outing over hurdles this season, he remains uncertain to make the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. "He has had a bit of a problem with his knee, though he came back from the vet yesterday with a good report," Willie Mullins said. "If there's any doubt, we'll skip Cheltenham, but I would like to get a run into him somewhere. It's a lot of weight, but he carried it last year when the [soft] ground didn't suit him that well."

If Roche needs to demonstrate that the time to beat Hedgehunter is when your horse is on the upgrade and receiving plenty of weight, he need only point to last year's result. The winner carried 10st 6lb, while third place for McManus's Liverpool veteran Clan Royal suggested he can scarcely hope to do better this time.

Jonjo O'Neill is trying to keep Clan Royal young with "hunting and messing around", but suspects that he is now "too long in the tooth". On the other hand, the trainer acknowledges that a prominent show in the Gold Cup could make Exotic Dancer look fairly treated even as joint top weight.

But the most likely favourite on the day is Dun Doire, who has conformed to the modern trend by sheltering over hurdles for most of the winter. After a drought between 1975 until 1999, the Irish have now won five out of eight runnings and Dun Doire's extraordinary performance at Cheltenham last year did not represent the limit of his improvement. Tony Martin, his dextrous trainer, was incautious enough to express "delight" with Dun Doire's weight of 10st 8lb.

As for Numbersixvalverde himself, he too has been keeping his nose clean over hurdles, though this time he must carry 11st 3lb if he is to be the first since Red Rum to win consecutive Nationals. "It's a much better race now than when Red Rum was running in it," Martin Brassil, his trainer, said. "But it's unbelievable even to have won it once. And having come from small beginnings makes it that much sweeter."

As and when he manages to win the great race, that is a sentiment with which McManus could concur. He just has to decide where the harsh realities end, and the fairytales start.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Folk Tune

(Musselburgh 3.30)

NB: Nenuphar Collonges

(Leicester 3.10)