Deep Bramble ran poorly in the Gold Cup despite attracting fierce support in the betting ring, being pulled up a long way from home. The cause of his rapid submission, however, was quickly discovered to be an injury to a muscle in his shoulder, probably sustained at the second fence.
Ironically, his lack of serious exertion at Cheltenham might be in his favour at Aintree, since those runners which completed the course in the Gold Cup appeared to have had the sort of race which most horses will endure only once in a season. In order to find out, though, Nicholls must get Deep Bramble to Liverpool.
"It's a bit of a battle at the moment, and if he's not right next week he won't run," Nicholls said yesterday. "But I think we're winning, and he's a fit, fresh horse. I turned him out in the paddock the other afternoon and he was bucking and squealing. It's just a case of getting his jumping muscle right, which normally takes about 10 days, so we're nearly there."
More promising news yesterday concerned Crystal Spirit, who would elevate Ian Balding, his trainer, into very exclusive company were he to land the big race. Very few handlers have sent out winners of the Derby, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and the Grand National, but Crystal Spirit could complete the collection, both for Balding and his owner, Paul Mellon, who enjoyed a Derby-Arc double with Mill Reef more than 20 years ago.
Crystal Spirit has not been out since his defeat of Southolt at Ascot in January, and Balding is considering running the gelding in a handicap chase at the same course on Saturday to remove any cobwebs.
"It would give us a chance to get him fit but we run the risk of him having a hard race or picking up an injury," the trainer said yesterday. The going will also affect his decision, as Crystal Spirit has a definite preference for a sound surface. Jamie Osborne has been booked for the ride at Liverpool, news which prompted support for Crystal Spirit from 50-1 to 25-1 yesterday.
Given his previous medical record, few backers would have taken less than even money about Montelado failing to make the National meeting, and the hurdler's ill fortune has indeed returned following his promising display in the Champion Hurdle, his first racecourse outing for two years. Pat Flynn had hoped to run Montelado in the Aintree Hurdle on National day.
The horse, who seemed sure to be one of jumping's major forces when sauntering away with the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the 1993 Festival, will now be prepared instead for a campaign on the Flat. "He hated the ground at Cheltenham and pulled some ligaments in his hind quarters," Flynn said yesterday.
"You won't see him out for a couple of months and I don't have a race in mind, but there are some good handicaps which will suit him." If luck really does even out in the end, Montelado should be backed off the boards when he next appears.
Deep Bramble (nearside) who must overcome injury before contesting the Grand National Photograph: Robert Hallam