Racing: 147th Grand National: Zeta's Lad to vindicate Upson's instinct: A chaser with a perfect record this season is selected by Richard Edmondson to maintain the sequence

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AFTER Brown Trix and Seeandem died in a horribly public manner in the 1989 Grand National, the Aintree course was changed and many said this was not the race of old.

Since then there have been fewer casualties and Christopher Mordaunt, who set the weights for today's runners, has even described it as just another race, except longer.

This supposed dilution in the spectacle of the Grand National is not felt by others, however. The National remains the most popular sporting event among television audiences and will attract more betting money today, an estimated pounds 75m, than it ever has done.

And to many of the jockeys who will attempt to combat the 30 unique fences, the four-and-a-half mile race remains the ultimate test of horse and rider. Steve Smith Eccles and Peter Scudamore, the two senior jockeys of the weighing room, use the same word when they describe the challenge of Aintree. The word is daunting.

'Just walk down to the Chair (the 5ft 2in high fence which is the peak of the National obstacles) and look at it and you'll see this race is still special,' Smith Eccles said.

Scudamore has ridden more winners than any man in National Hunt history, yet he still tingles at the thought of taking part in the National. 'It's still a special day, which starts with the almost magical moment when the horses are at morning exercise. The ones that have run in the National before have a certain aura about them, and there is a definite respect for the horse.'

There is also a definite respect about the chances of Scudamore's mount this afternoon, Captain Dibble. The winner of the Scottish National last year, the gelding has persuaded the champion jockey to desert his retained stable of Martin Pipe, which supplies five of this afternoon's field.

Captain Dibble is one of five horses who could start as favourite. This group includes last year's first and second, Party Politics and Romany King, who have both been prepared specifically with this race in mind.

There are differences this time, though. Party Politics, the biggest horse ever to win a National, has been 'tubed', a wind operation which means he has a pipe sticking out of his throat, while Romany King has missed Cheltenham this year in an effort to preserve his powers for this single race.

On the other hand, the Jenny Pitman pair of Royal Athlete and Garrison Savannah, who yesterday became the selected ride of the trainer's son, Mark, both ran in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which may have enfeebled them.

'I've gone for Garrison because I think he might be like Corbiere (his mother's 1983 National winner) and be a bit of an Aintree specialist,' the jockey said yesterday.

Of all the fancied runners, however, the one with the most commanding form is Zeta's Lad, who has won all his five races this season. The 10-year-old, who is trained in Northamptonshire by John Upson, almost died from colic three years ago and was again under the weather last season.

'I always knew he was a good horse, but he really threw us last year because he was definitely not right,' Upson said. 'I remember first time out at Towcester, he finished second and then blew more than any other horse I've ever seen. He almost blew the weighing room down.

'But when Robbie (Supple, the horse's regular jockey) rode him first time this year he said he was a completely different horse.

'You never know with Aintree, but I think my horse will get round. He's not an extravagant jumper and you won't see him flying over ditches, but he measures his fences, just like Robbie, and that's what helps them mesh as a team.'

Upson and Supple are an established team of their own, and will be one of the less animated partnerships when the pre-race tactics are fired around the saddling area this afternoon.

'The last time I gave Robbie instructions on how to ride a race was 1988,' Upson said. 'I train the horse and my job is to get it there fit on the day. He does the riding.

'The real problem with giving jockeys instructions, especially in a race like the National, is that more often than not the race doesn't turn out as you expect. If you anticipate a fast-run race and it isn't, what is the jockey supposed to do? Follow the instructions to the letter and get beaten?

'If 30 trainers instruct their horses to be in the first five early on, something is going to give.'

Upson likes to think ZETA'S LAD (nap 3.50) has all the attributes to win a National. He can see it in the form book, but most of all he can sense it in his bones.

And the National, changes and all, captivates the public as it remains a race where logic is a poor friend.

'It's no good being the favourite or being the best horse. Most of all it's got to be your year,' the trainer said. 'I'm not someone who always thinks their horse is going to win, but this year I just have a feeling.'

--------------------------------------------------------------------- THE EXPERTS' PREDICTIONS --------------------------------------------------------------------- RICHARD EDMONDSON --------------------------------------------------------------------- 1. Zeta's Lad 2. Romany King 3. Party Politics 4. Garrison Savannah BEST LONGSHOT Givus A Buck --------------------------------------------------------------------- HYPERION --------------------------------------------------------------------- 1. Zeta's Lad 2. Party Politics 3. Captain Dibble BEST LONGSHOT Latent Talent --------------------------------------------------------------------- FORM GUIDE --------------------------------------------------------------------- 1. Royal Athlete 2. Zeta's Lad 3. Garrison Savannah 4. Party Politics BEST LONGSHOT Kildimo ---------------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)