Race fit for a queen

Sue Montgomery believes that the heroes of Cheltenham will also set the pace at Aintree
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ALTHOUGH it is 61 years since Golden Miller doubled up in the Gold Cup and Grand National, the Cheltenham championship is once more becoming a valid pointer to Aintree. In the pre-war era (the Gold Cup was founded in 1924), the top-class staying chasers of the day tended to have a crack at both. Horses like Grakle, Kellsboro' Jack and Royal Mail won the National and were placed in the Gold Cup, Easter Hero did it the other way round, and Delaneige, Thomond and Old Tay Bridge were placed in both races.

After the tremendous second- place Aintree efforts by the Cheltenham winners Prince Regent (1946) and Mont Tremblant (1953), the next horse to appear in the first three at both venues was L'Escargot, who followed his Gold Cup wins in 1970 and 1971 with a 3-2-1 progression in the National between 1973 and 1975. After him came, Aldaniti, third at Cheltenham in 1979 and first at Aintree in 1981. Then the 1987 Gold Cup winner The Thinker claimed third place in the National two years later.

The easing of the National fences has meant that the race is no longer the non-starter for the classy horses that it once was, and four years ago Garrison Savannah came closest to Golden Miller's magnificent achievement when only Seagram caught him on the run-in in the second leg of the double.

This year, the first three home in the Gold Cup come on from Cheltenham and, given ordinary luck and no extremes of going, it is not difficult to envisage the trio filling the frame again. There is a precedent: when Golden Miller won his National in 1934, he was followed home by Delaneige and Thomond, who had finished third and second to him in the Gold Cup the previous year.

Master Oats, Dubacilla and Miinnehoma are three top-class staying chasers with impeccable credentials. But whereas Master Oats was crowned king of Cheltenham and Miinnehoma is the reigning ruler of Aintree, the queen, Dubacilla, can come out on top this time round.

The last of the 12 mares to have won a National was Nickel Coin in 1951. But the few who have taken part since have an excellent record, with first- four placings from Gentle Moya (1956), Tiberetta (1957-58-59), Rainbow Battle (1965), Miss Hunter (1970), Eyecatcher (1976-77), Auntie Dot (1991) and Ebony Jane last year.

Dubacilla is in a different class from any of those and, having chased Master Oats home on her last two runs, is arguably the second-best chaser in Britain. Over the longer distance and the trickier obstacles, she can turn the tables.

Although she was 15 lengths behind Master Oats in the Gold Cup, she was doing all her best work in the closing stages and, like her half-brother Just So, the further she goes the better she likes it. The nine-year-old is an extremely good jumper, clever without being too flamboyant, and has struck up a marvellous relationship with her jockey Dean Gallagher, who knows he must keep her up to her work in the early stages of a race without bullying her, then let the lady get on with it in her own time. Her trainer David Nicholson is adamant that she is not a moody old bag, but, even if she were, the Aintree fences can bring out the best in many of that type.

Just So, not nearly as good as his young half-sister, came from nowhere to push Miinnehoma all the way up the run-in last year before going down by just more than a length. It is not unheard of for close relations to do well at Aintree: among recent winners, Anglo and Red Alligator were half-brothers and Hallo Dandy and Rhyme 'N' Reason were uncle and nephew.

Master Oats has been favourite for the National since his devastating beating of Earth Summit and Party Politics in the Welsh National at Newbury. His stamina is not in doubt, and he has not been beaten since he fell at the 13th fence in last year's National. His jumping is vastly improved, but it may still be the slight chink in his armour, for at Aintree he would be unlikely to get away with a mistake like the bad one he made at Cheltenham. The last favourite to win was Grittar in 1982, and no horse has successfully carried as much as 11st 10lb since Red Rum claimed the second of his three victories under 12st in 1974.

The old triple hero was the eighth horse to win two Grand Nationals, and Miinnehoma is a credible candidate to become the ninth. He is lightly raced for his 12 years, jumps and stays, can produce a turn of foot, and may have improved. But whatever his qualifications, Dubacilla's seem better. The trio are all happiest on soft ground, but the mare may be the least inconvenienced should the going firm up.

The other previous National winner trying for a repeat is the 1992 hero Party Politics, who has been beaten twice by Master Oats this season. But the big horse now has a pull of a stone and a half from their last meeting, comes to the race fresh, and horses who have run well at Aintree often do so again. Jenny Pitman's 1993 "winner" Esha Ness is one of six from the yard, but the best may be Garrison Savannah, who beat Young Hustler earlier in the season and was leading when he was brought down early on the second circuit last year. However, only two of the past 15 winners have won from out of the handicap.

If the ground dries out, Young Hustler must come into the reckoning. The tough eight-year-old has kept the best company all season, but has not yet had the fast ground he needs to show his best. In last year's National he parted company with his jockey David Bridgewater when he was hampered by a loose horse, but then proceeded to lead the field round the second circuit on his own, jumping immaculately.

There has not been an Irish-trained winner since L'Escargot, and this year best hopes may lie with the dour stayers Commercial Artist and Nuaffe, though neither jumped well in the Gold Cup.

As well has her practical qualifications, Dubacilla offers the mandatory Grand National fairy tale. She was born and bred on a Somerset bed-and- breakfast farm by Henry and Veronica Cole, who prepared Just So themselves but sent Dubacilla to benefit from the better facilities of the five-star establishment run by Nicholson, who saddled the favourite Moorcroft Boy to finish third last year.

The mare's grandmother Princess Camilla earned notoriety by delaying the start of the 1974 race with a rodeo act before finishing last of the 16 finishers behind Red Rum. Dubacilla can make up for granny's behaviour and avenge her half-brother's defeat.