Racing: Nicholls has National faith in Auclair

Just as the lure of cash persuaded comedian Jack Dee to drop his hard-man image and perform a routine with a widget and dancing ladybirds in a John Smith's TV ad campaign a few years ago, it has concentrated the minds of owners and trainers with anything that can stay a bit and jump a bit. A no-nonsense record prize-fund of £700,000 for the 158th Grand National, the first under the brewery's sponsorship, has resulted in a no-nonsense record entry of 152. It will, though, be whittled down to a maximum field of 40 by the big day, 9 April.

The first seven home last year - Amberleigh House, Clan Royal, Lord Atterbury, Monty's Pass, Spot Thedifference, Smarty and Ardent Scout - take up the challenge again. Monty's Pass, of course, won in 2003 and the horse in the victory enclosure 12 months before him, Bindaree, is also among the contenders. Clan Royal and Silver Birch, winner of the Welsh National last month, head the betting but the market will not hot up until the announcement of the weights on Tuesday week.

Amberleigh House has run just three times, without success, since his day of days last year, most recently when a staying-on fifth to Silver Birch in the Becher Chase in November. But his trainer, Ginger McCain, reports the 13-year-old in good form. "He'll be out within the next fortnight, possibly at Wetherby," he said. "Everything is spot-on; in fact we're a shade further forward than expected. I watched him come up the gallops this week and he is really well."

Monty's Pass has won only a charity Flat race since his Aintree glory and yesterday finished tailed-off last over two-and-a-half miles behind Champion Chase-bound Rathgar Beau in the mud at Thurles on his seasonal fencing debut. But his rider, Barry Geraghty, was far from downhearted and the 12-year-old will revert to hurdles for his final prep run. "He ran a nice race," said the Irishman. "The trip was always going to be too short and he doesn't like soft ground."

Those trainers adopting the scattergun approach to entry strategy are Jonjo O'Neill, with 14 engaged, Martin Pipe (13), Paul Nicholls (seven) and Ferdy Murphy (six). Among owners, J P McManus holds the call with 19; Trevor Hemmings, whose lifelong ambition is to win this prize, has six; and champion owner David Johnson five.

O'Neill did not win a National as a jockey but came close as a trainer with McManus's Clan Royal last year. The 10-year-old, plus the François Doumen-trained First Gold and Le Coudray, from Christy Roche's Irish yard, are the most likely runners in the green, white, and gold colours. Clan Royal, whose stable has all but shut down because of a virus, has raced just once since his three-length defeat by Amberleigh House, and Le Coudray has not been sighted at all since falling at the second Becher's. But First Gold ran a fine trial when second in the Peter Marsh Chase on Saturday.

"They seem to be coming back into form at Jonjo's," Frank Berry, McManus's racing manager, said, "and hopefully we can find a race for Clan Royal before the National. First Gold ran a blinder at Haydock and we'll be playing it by ear with him; I'm not sure he'll have another run. Le Coudray is cantering away now and hopefully he'll have more luck this time."

Hemmings's challengers are headed by Hedgehunter, who blazed last year's trail and was still in contention when crashing at the last. Willie Mullins's charge is one of 36 entries from Ireland, home of three of the past six winners. The classiest of Johnson's contenders is the Hennessy Gold Cup winner Celestial Gold; other highly rated animals entered are the Gold Cup runner-up Sir Rembrandt, Ballycassidy, Grey Abbey, Royal Auclair - rated by Nicholls, who also trains Silver Birch, as the best of his squad - and top novice Ollie Magern (all due to contest the Gold Cup trial at Cheltenham tomorrow).

GRAND NATIONAL (Aintree, 9 April): Coral: 12-1 Clan Royal, 14-1 Silver Birch, 16-1 Grey Abbey, 20-1 Celestial Gold, Chives, Frenchman's Creek, Amberleigh House, Colonel Frank, 25-1 Bindaree, Forest Gunner, Fork Lightning, Granit D'Estruval, Joly Bey, Jurancon II, Lord Atterbury, Puntal, 33-1 others.

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