Racing: Master Oats floats to favouritism: Torrential rain buoys up a plunge on a soft-ground specialist whose stable makes a splash on Aintree's opening day

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The water coursed through Becher's Brook and the Leeds-Liverpool waterway rose at the Canal Turn yesterday as Aintree prepared itself for only the second soft- ground Grand National in the last 10 years.

Torrential rain in Liverpool over the last week, and the threat of more, lots of it, to come over the next 24 hours, has had punters scrutinising the form book for heavy-ground specialists. One name has emerged: Master Oats.

From being 14-1 a week ago, the gelding has now usurped The Fellow and Double Silk in Ladbrokes' list and is 6-1 clear favourite. He is a point longer with Coral and William Hill.

With much in Master Oats's favour, one negative factor was removed from his challenge yesterday, the opening day of the National meeting. Kim Bailey, his trainer, ended a losing run of 40 days when Docklands Express won the Martell Cup to give the Upper Lambourn trainer his third consecutive win in the race.

Docklands Express, Richard Dunwoody's 150th winner this season, has now won 18 races and well over pounds 300,000 in prize-money. 'He's an unbelievable horse,' Bailey said of the 12-year-old. 'And it was great to see him enjoying it so much.'

Docklands Express's closest pursuer, Black Humour, who might have won had he not sprawled like a new-born antelope over the last, was back in Lambourn last night as Charlie Brooks, his trainer, toyed with the idea of retracing steps up the M6 for the National. 'The back man comes round on Fridays,' he said. 'So we'll make a decision after he's looked at him.'

An immediate decision was made after this race, though, when Arctic Call, who dribbled home last, was retired. In his comeback from injury this season, Oliver Sherwood's old soldier has looked an imposter for the horse that won the 1990 Hennessy Gold Cup, but the trainer nevertheless chose to lean on warmer memories. 'He's been a great servant,' he said.

The courageous Indian Tonic again proved his mettle when the fir on the National fences was rearranged for the first time since November in the John Hughes Memorial Chase. The eight-year-old hung on tenaciously despite operating on the lungs of a 40-a-day man. 'He suffers from terrible chronic lung problems,' Nigel Twiston-Davies, who later completed a training double with Grange Brake, said. 'If he wasn't so good, he'd never win a race. One day, when he's sorted out, we'll have a very, very good horse.'

There were conflicting fortunes for those who travelled here as Cheltenham Festival winners. Nakir gathered himself after his Arkle Chase success to follow up in the Maghull Novices' Chase, but the unbeaten record of the Triumph Hurdle winner, Mysilv, perished in the Glenlivet Anniversary Hurdle.

Her place in the 1995 Champion Hurdle market slipped, but there was elevation for others. Jazilah's victory saw William Hill's man gazing into the mists of the future and offering the gelding at 33-1 for Prestbury Park in 11 months' time, while Mysilv's conqueror, the Irish- trained Tropical Lake, was introduced at 20-1.

But this was not just an afternoon for the stage of the race-track, more for the bookings kiosk, as some of the final National partnerships fell into place. Richard Dunwoody has plumped for Miinnehoma out of Martin Pipe's five-strong representation (arrangements for the other four are still in the pending tray), while Graham McCourt will ride Elfast, Tom Jenks will be on board Channels Gate, Charlie Swan on Henry Mann and Chris Grant, who is known as 'Rambo' in these circles, will, appropriately enough, be on He Who Dares Wins.

Roddy Armytage, who trains Merry Master, reports that his horse, the proposed mount of daughter Gee, will not participate if the going is soft, while High Peak, the badly beaten favourite in Monday's Irish Grand National is definitely out and will be prepared instead for the Scottish equivalent at Ayr.

Those who do compete tomorrow may face the safest passage National horses have ever had. There were no injuries yesterday to horses or riders. It was a very soft landing.

GRAND NATIONAL: William Hill: 7-1 Double Silk & Master Oats, 8-1 The Fellow, 9-1 Moorcroft Boy, 12-1 Young Hustler, 16-1 Elfast, 18-1 Zeta's Lad, 20- 1 Garrison Savannah, 22-1 Black Humour & Miinnehoma, 25-1 Into The Red, Romany King, Topsham Bay, 28-1 Run For Free, 33-1 Ebony Jane, 40-1 Gale Again, Mister Ed, Mr Boston, Riverside Boy, 50-1 Henry Mann, Just So, Southern Minstrel, Ushers Island, 66-1 Bishops Hall, It's A Cracker, Laura's Beau, Windy Ways, 100-1 others

Security clampdown, page 6

Yesterday's results, page 35

(Photograph omitted)

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