Grim reminder of a fatal attraction

GRAND NATIONAL MEETING: An outstanding ride on Merry Gale is overshadow ed as the fences take their toll of man and beast
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It is a sadness of the Grand National that the meeting invariably has casualties to deflate the excitement. Yesterday was no different as men and beasts succumbed to the unique demands that Liverpool presents.

Chief among the humans affected was Richard Dunwoody, the champion jockey who captured the big one 12 months ago on Miinnehoma. The Ulsterman damaged a knee last week when he was kicked after a fall and has aggravated the injury every time he has ridden since.

Dunwoody's prospects of resuming his partnership with Miinnehoma now lie not in his hands but those of the physiotherapist treating him. After two rides yesterday he retired and went to Fazakerley Hospital for advice. "It's my left knee," he said. "Each time I put pressure on it, it gets worse."

Dunwoody, who was given pain-killing injections at the hospital, will be back to fight another day, though, just as Mark Richards, who suffered concussion and a broken nose in Avonburn's fall and Simon Burrough, who dislocated a shoulder when unseated from L'Uomo Piu in the same race. The same cannot be said of Avonburn, Latent Talent and Roxton Hill, victims of the meeting's first race over the National fences. The former fractured a pelvis at the first obstacle, Latent Talent broke his neck and Roxton Hill collapsed and died after his exertions. Those who believe that modifications to Aintree's spruce have made the course less of a test for horse and jockey would do well to scrutinise a video of the John Hughes Memorial Trophy.

The deaths spoiled what was a typically captivating card at Liverpool. Graham Bradley, whose performance here on Morley Street two years ago was acclaimed as the ride of the year, again showed that his judgement of pace is unparalleled with success in the Martell Cup Chase on Merry Gale. If Bradley was a motorway bobby he would not have to rely on a speed gun to gauge the motorists driving past him.

Merry Gale was a purposeful front-runner in the Gold Cup, but the tactics were reversed here as he was kept 20 lengths off the lead of Martomick. Most of that distance had been reclaimed by the time the field swung into the straight and when Kim Bailey's mare rearranged the third last the outcome was decided.

"I would not have liked him [Bradley] to be as far back as that, but we hired him to ride the horse and that's his job," Jim Dreaper, Merry Gale's trainer said. "He got it bang on.

"I'll listen to this man from now on. He told me the horse wanted good ground and had to be held up to get the trip."

In another life, Dreaper was second on Black Secret in the 1971 National and four years later, as an infant trainer, he had a rewarding Cheltenham Festival, highlighted by Ten Up's victory in the Gold Cup. That was the last season he had a winner within these shores, however, until yesterday. Thoughts for Merry Gale have already turned to next March, when he will attempt to emulate Ten Up's feat.

Elsewhere, there were multiple warnings for those with exciting ante- post vouchers about the National that times, along with the going, are changing. The jockeys reported the ground just on the firm side of good, with more than one describing the surface as a carpet. It will feel more threadbare than shag pile though if the sunny weather persists.

Martin Pipe had the sort of day that will get scant coverage in his diary as his Cheltenham winners Kissair and Allegation ran is if they were wearing flippers. Morceli and Stompin, on the other hand, were far more potent animals than they had been at the Festival, suggesting that the only use left for the form book this season is as a doorstop.

With this in mind there was much amendment in the market for the National, most notably from Ladbrokes, who promoted Young Hustler to the head of their list at 6-1, half a point clear of Master Oats. Kim Bailey, the trainer of the Gold Cup winner, revealed he would not finally confirm his gelding as a runner until he has walked the track tomorrow morning. Further word from the camp, though, was that Master Oats would compete unless his trainer found the track covered in tarmac.

Others on the slide yesterday were Miinnehoma and Dubacilla, while the contractions were for the fast-ground horses Country Member, Crystal Spirit and Lusty Light. After the events of yesterday, though, the wish for all will be as much safety as success.