Racing: Missile locked on to Cup target

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AS ANY student of form can tell you, the chance that there will not actually be a Grand National on Saturday is, on the face of it at least, no more encouraging than about 5-2 against. Twice in the last five years, first in 1993 because of mayhem at the start and then 12 months ago because of even greater chaos half an hour beforehand, the nation's favourite race has not gone ahead as planned. The task which faces the Aintree authorities as their most important meeting begins today is to ensure that the actual odds of another National disaster are rather closer to 1,000-1.

To be fair, of course, the bomb scare which forced the postponement of last year's race for 48 hours was hardly something for which Charles Barnett, Aintree's clerk of the course, could be held responsible. Both Barnett and Merseyside police, though, are determined that there will be no repeat performance. Tight security measures will be in place for all three days of the National meeting, and all racegoers will be searched on arrival, while plans have also been drawn to counter demonstrations by animal-rights activists. Hoax callers will face the "severest penalties", including a possible seven-year prison sentence, according to Superintendent Ray Revill-Johnson, who is in charge of the security operation.

Car parking has also been thoroughly reviewed, with all racegoers urged to use a free park-and-ride service, based one mile from the course at junction six of the M57. Parking on the course itself will be strictly limited to those with pre-bookings, and any vehicles parked illegally will be towed away within a matter of minutes.

No matter how they are travelling to the course, meanwhile, all racegoers are strongly advised to arrive as early as possible. The gates will open at 7am on Saturday, and Barnett promises "plenty of early-morning entertainment" to keep everyone amused until the serious business begins. If Saturday's card is anything like today's, though, the wait will be difficult, since the meeting opens with a fascinating series of contests.

Best of all is the Martell Cup, which brings together Dorans Pride, third in the Gold Cup, The Grey Monk and the second-best staying novice chaser in training, Escartefigue, not to mention five other useful types.

Escartefigue has certainly come a long way in 12 months - on this day last year he won the handicap hurdle which closes the card - but he may not be ready to beat the older chasers. Dorans Pride, meanwhile, never seemed likely to trouble Cool Dawn at Cheltenham and may be overrated on the basis of some soft wins in Ireland, and The Grey Monk has not seen a course since mid-December.

Instead, it appears that The Grey Monk's stablemate, Unguided Missile (2.35), is the one to be on at around 9-2. This easy track should suit him ideally, and his front-running performance in the William Hill Handicap Chase at Cheltenham was arguably the finest of his life.

It is harder to oppose Champleve (3.10), the Arkle Trophy winner, in the novice chase, since the conditions allow him a weight advantage with all his rivals, but another strong fancy from Martin Pipe's yard, Fataliste in the opener, could be vulnerable. He will probably be forced to contest the lead with Caulker, and that could give a chance to Mountain Storm (2.00), who is a very fair 14-1 chance with Ladbrokes this morning. FRAZER ISLAND (nap 3.45), who ran a fine race from out of the handicap in the Mildmay of Flete at Cheltenham, has strong claims in the John Hughes Trophy over the National fences, while Rainbow Frontier (4.20), going well when a faller in the Triumph Hurdle, is also worth a second look.

Defections from the Grand National field yesterday included Senor El Betrutti, who runs instead in the Martell Cup today, while Jenny Pitman's Amtrak Express is also a non-runner and Superior Finish, trained by her son Mark, is only "50-50" to line up. Glemot, Valient Warrior and Griffins Bar, meanwhile, are runners in today's John Hughes Trophy and thus unlikely to run on Saturday unless they make an early exit this afternoon.