With each passing year, the race that can most legitimately be described as an institution seems increasingly likely to drive Tony McCoy into one. Just as the Derby torments Frankie Dettori, so the Grand National remains a source of growing exasperation for the most prolific jump jockey in history. But yesterday something happened that entitles McCoy to hope he will exorcise his Aintree curse, sooner rather than later.
Certainly the significance of Far From Trouble's success in a little race over hurdles at Down Royal yesterday was not lost on the bookmakers. Coral cut his odds for the National, sponsored again by John Smith's, from 20-1 to 14-1, meaning that he is now viewed as one of the four best candidates for the race. The last two winners, Numbersixvalverde and Hedgehunter, share 12-1 favouritism, with Dun Doire also on 14-1. As will be seen, however, it is not that simple for punters.
This was Far From Trouble's first start since winning the Galway Plate last August and McCoy, who had been due to ride at frozen Ludlow, had left the mount to Alan Crowe. Yet while his true métier is jumping fences on much faster ground, the horse remains so progressive that he was able to administer a convincing defeat to the odds-on Powerstation.
Far From Trouble is owned by JP McManus, who retains McCoy and has himself long hankered after a first success in the National. Two years ago the pair were aghast when Clan Royal, still tanking along in the lead, was carried out by loose horses at Becher's second time round. Clan Royal ran a fine third last year, but he is now 12 and McCoy will surely be tempted to desert him for the younger horse.
First, however, he must be given the choice - and Christy Roche, Far From Trouble's trainer, counselled against anyone backing his horse at this stage. "When we discussed it last, and I asked JP will I stick the horse in the National, he said that I could enter him but that he felt he lacked experience for Aintree this year," Roche explained. "He felt it might take another year before he was ready for the National. And when JP has those kind of ideas he's never too far wrong. So I have to overcome that obstacle if he is to run. Whenever I have done that, JP has nearly always been proved right."
Of course, it may turn out that Far From Trouble will be so irresistibly handicapped that McManus will find it difficult not to run in April. The chances are that he will be rated far higher this time next year. For now, however, the uncertainty should not disguise an imperative for any punter with red blood in his veins. For this horse has all the makings of one of the bets of the season when he runs at Cheltenham, probably in the William Hill Chase. Several weeks ago McManus intimated that one of the Festival handicaps would be a natural priority for Far From Trouble, and his wily trainer is certain to have him ready to run for his life.
"Down the road, if he stays in one piece, you'd love to think he could go to Aintree, but Cheltenham is in our mind this year," Roche admitted. "He's beautifully balanced, the perfect model of a horse, with a very good pedigree. The only thing that restricts him is that he doesn't like heavy ground."
It may take a National win for Far From Trouble to surpass Brave Inca in McCoy's affections. But he may not be able to ride the champion hurdler at Cheltenham, with McManus likely to claim him for Straw Bear. Ruby Walsh may yet be required by Paul Nicholls for Desert Quest, which would leave Colm Murphy needing a new rider - an unwelcome change from having the choice between two of the great jockeys.
"I haven't approached anyone and I don't plan to until a few days before the race, if it still looks as though they will both be tied up," the trainer said. He added that he has not ruled out trying Brave Inca in a blinkers at home before the Festival.
Another Irish champion at Cheltenham last year, Newmill, is likely to go straight to the Queen Mother Champion Chase despite falling in his first steeplechase this season at Punchestown last Sunday. John Murphy, his trainer, said yesterday that he would enter him for a race over two and a half miles at Naas on 25 February, but that there was only "a slight possibility" that he would run.
The Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse the previous day is the new target for one of the rising stars of Irish chasing after In Compliance failed to please his trainer. Michael O'Brien will instead run Forget The Past - who seems to have exposed a lack of fitness in his stablemate in their workout yesterday - against The Listener and Beef Or Salmon in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Saturday.
* Today's Huntingdon card is abandoned due to frost.
NB: Rockys Girl