Racing: Fellow is the one to follow: Sue Montgomery believes that the Aintree favourite can claim an historic double

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HE MAY be an unoriginal choice, but The Fellow must have an outstanding chance of becoming only the second horse to complete the Gold Cup-Grand National double in the same year. Money has poured on the French challenger since he won at Cheltenham, and on Saturday he is likely to start the shortest-priced National favourite since Red Rum 19 years ago.

And no wonder. The Fellow has all the right qualifications: he has class, he stays, he has a turn of foot, he is a superb, sure-footed jumper and he is absolutely bred for the job. And with 11st 4lb to carry if Run For Free runs, he is leniently handicapped.

Red Rum started at 7-2 to record his third successive victory when he was beaten by L'Escargot in 1975 while the last favourite to win the National was the 7-1 chance Grittar in 1982. David Hood, of William Hill, said: 'The professionals backed The Fellow at tens and eights after Cheltenham, so he was already down to 6-1 by the time he was confirmed a runner last Wednesday. We expect his price to tumble this week. He will be the choice of the public as well as the pros. He will never be so well handicapped again.'

The Fellow, a good-looking nine-year-old, has breeding on his side. Although the horse was born and raised among cattle and baler twine on a hill farm in central France, his story is hardly one of rags to riches. He comes from a special French non-thoroughbred strain designed for steeplechasing, and as soon as he was acquired by the wealthy socialite the Marquesa de Moratalla, it was likely his destiny would be fulfilled.

His urbane trainer, Francois Doumen, is one of the best. He has a yard at Lamorlaye, near Chantilly, and The Fellow learned his jumping craft around the enormous selection of fences on the training grounds.

The one type of fence not provided for practice there is a replica of Becher's, but The Fellow's long suit is his jumping. He has won 11 times round Auteuil, and anyone who has seen the obstacles there will doubt neither the horse's ability to jump around Aintree, nor his regular pilot Adam Kondrat's ability to ride the course.

The Fellow has won on going from good to heavy, and will be entirely suited by Aintree's flat terrain. One slight worry is the number of runners; the horse has indicated in the past that he is not overkeen on being crowded.

It is 60 years since Golden Miller's unique double. French- trained horses have won the National twice previously - Huntsman (1862) and Cortolvin (1867) - and there have been three French-bred winners - Alcibiade (1864), Reugny (1874) and Lutteur (1909). The Marquesa's brother, the Marquis de Portago, rode his own Garde Toi in 1950, but failed to complete.

Is there anything to beat The Fellow, who seems as much a certainty as is possible in a race where luck is needed as well as talent? The other class horse likely to be in the line-up is Young Hustler, five- and-a-half lengths third in the Gold Cup and now with 6lb less to carry than The Fellow. Young Hustler, in only his second season over fences, is one of the toughest horses in training. The Gold Cup was his eighth race of the season and his trainer, Nigel Twiston-

Davies, deserves every credit for producing him fresh and sound that day after a heavy fall only three weeks before.

He is a very good jumper and races with great zest, but was not only outpaced but outstayed at Cheltenham. He is still only seven; the last of that age to win the National was Bogskar in 1940. But he will be a tremendous first ride in the race for young David Bridgewater, the likely replacement for the luckless Carl Llewellyn.

Until The Fellow entered calculations, the big-race favourite, almost by default, was Double Silk, the current champion hunter- chaser. The 10-year-old entered the National picture last year after he brought off the Cheltenham and Liverpool Foxhunters' double, and memories of Grittar and Spartan Missile came flooding back.

Double Silk, unbeaten in his past nine runs, is another first- class jumper and stays for ever. But he has not yet met anything like the opposition he will face on Saturday. Both Grittar (sixth) and Spartan Missile (fourth) faced open competition in the Gold Cup before their National efforts. Double Silk's pilot, the 38-year-old dairy farmer Ron Treloggan, will have a wonderful ride around, but probably not at a winning pace.

Reg Wilkins's hunter has shown his best form on top of the ground, while two who relish it soft underfoot are Master Oats and Moorcroft Boy, first and second in the Greenalls Gold Cup at Kempton in February. Neither has run since; both should be fresh and ready for the task.

Master Oats, whose trainer, Kim Bailey, already has a National to his name with Mr Frisk, has had only nine previous races, having missed the whole of last season. He was impressive at Kempton and holds Moorcroft Boy on that run, but he may lack the jumping experience needed for Aintree.

Moorcroft Boy caught the eye when he stayed on well to beat Chatam at Warwick, albeit getting 24lb from the runner-up, with Into the Red seven lengths behind him at level weights. A former hunter- chaser (he was fifth in Double Silk's 1993 Cheltenham Foxhunters), he has proved himself the best of the long-distance handicappers this season.

A strongly built nine-year-old, he is owned by the food magnate and rugby fanatic Ken Manley, trained by David Nicholson and will be the mount of Adrian Maguire. The champion, Richard Dunwoody, will have the choice of Martin Pipe's entries. Run For Free has already won Welsh and Scottish Nationals for the yard, but has had problems this year.

He is one of a number of runners who finished down the field in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. They include his stablemate Miinnehoma, who previously ran a blinder to win at Newbury on his first appearance for 14 months over a distance too short. At his best, he would have a chance.

Garrison Savannah was pulled up in the Gold Cup after an early mistake. The Jenny Pitman- trained 11-year-old, who so very nearly emulated Golden Miller three years ago when he beat The Fellow by an inch in the Gold Cup and was caught by Seagram in the last 100 yards of the National, is not as good as he was but he knows his way around Aintree.

Elfast has been well supported since his game Mildmay of Flete win. He is untried over the distance but is a better horse than his owner-trainer John Webber's two- and-a-half mile mare Auntie Dot.

But the race could be for second place. As a handicap over a freak distance and freak fences, the National rarely identifies the season's champion, but this year may be the exception. The Marquesa de Moratalla is a world-class bridge player and she seems to have the strongest hand.

(Photograph omitted)