The purists and professionals may obsess all season about Cheltenham, but the Grand National is the race that counts with the public and yesterday the sport was peppered with Aintree warning volleys. The broadside came from Shotgun Willy, who produced a remarkable performance to win the Red Square Vodka Gold Cup at Haydock under top-weight on his first run of the season. But there were answering salvos from Gunner Welburn at Newbury, and Goguenard earlier at the Lancashire track.
Shotgun Willy, as his burden of 11st 12lb implied, was the class act among yesterday's 17 runners. Even though he had not raced since his second place in the Scottish Grand National 315 days earlier he looked perfectly ready to do his job, and Ruby Walsh pulled no punches in this contest over an extended three and a half miles. As the veteran Jocks Cross, on his final start, took the field along at an even gallop, Shotgun Willy was just behind, matching strides with Wonder Weasel.
No horse fell, but by the final turn the contenders had been reduced to six. The first to go for home was the least-fancied of the Martin Pipe-trained trio, You're Agoodun, who swept to the front under Robert Thornton three out, but the 40-1 shot compromised his chance with right-handed swerves over the final obstacles. He was still in front at the last, though, and as Wonder Weasel, who followed him over, could do no more, it seemed his main danger was his own stablemate, Iris Bleu.
But fortunes can change on the interminable run-in at Haydock and suddenly Shotgun Willy, six lengths down at the last fence, was in the mix again. A tremendous rally in the final 10 strides landed the prize by three-quarters of a length, with You're Agoodun a short-head in front of Iris Bleu, the 13-2 favourite, and game little Wonder Weasel five lengths back.
Fifteen of the field completed, with the others headed by the gallant Jocks Cross, Frosty Canyon, Supreme Glory and last year's National hero, Bindaree. Mini Sensation, Shotgun Willy's full-brother, was the first to be pulled up, ill at ease on ground not nearly soft enough for him.
It was a race record weight-carrying effort by Shotgun Willy, a tall, powerful chestnut nine-year-old with the goose-stepping hind-leg action known as stringhalt. "I honestly didn't think I'd win," said a delighted Walsh. "I was squeezing, squeezing all the way, and twice round here is a long way to do that. But he got his second wind going to the last and it's a long way to the line for those in front."
Shotgun Willy is still engaged in the Gold Cup, but a trip to Cheltenham is almost certainly out. "He would not run there unless it came up really heavy," said his trainer, Paul Nicholls. "He had a hard enough race today. The idea was always to give him just one run before Aintree and to keep something in the tank, and he will certainly improve from this."
Graham Roach's colourbearer is set to carry 11st 7lb at Aintree, and is now disputing favouritism with his stablemate, Ad Hoc, and Gunner Welburn, trained by Andrew Balding. "He's a big horse and he will carry the weight," added Nicholls. "Don't forget, he beat First Gold when he was a novice, and we have always known he was a very good horse."
After a rare disappointing run at Doncaster in January, Gunner Welburn had little more than an exercise outing on his favoured soft ground in the three-mile handicap chase at Newbury, stretching clear of Moral Support with his jockey, Barry Fenton, sitting motionless. His trainer's father, Ian, said of the former top hunter-chaser: "He looks the ideal horse for the race. He does need about 20 to come out before he is guaranteed a run, but now he has won again he may be top of the 10-stoners."
Goguenard, trained by Sue Smith and also due to carry the minimum in the big one, outjumped his rivals to take the two-and-a-half-mile handicap that preceded Haydock's feature by an easy six lengths, although fellow Aintree entry Red Striker would have been closer had he not fluffed the second-last. "As soon as I straightened up for home and gave him a kick there wasn't much going to get past me," said winning rider Warren Marston.
Another National challenger on view at the track, but not in competition, was last year's fourth Kingsmark, who went well in a two-and-a-half-mile gallop under Walsh on an away day from trainer Martin Todhunter's Penrith stables.