Racing / The Grand National: Handicapper expunges Aintree factor: The changing nature of the greatest chase is clear as trainers react benignly to the burdens of expectation

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The Independent Online
THERE IS a race in early April that is increasingly becoming known among trainers as the '4 1/2 -miler'. It used to be called the Grand National.

Amendments to the fearsome obstacles at Liverpool and consequent removal of the 'Aintree factor', the supposition that some horses have a refined sense of survival over the tall, dark fences, mean that many trainers consider the National to be just another handicap chase, except longer. Yesterday, for the first time, the official handicapper agreed.

When Christopher Mordaunt unveiled his scale of weights for the race on 3 April, he announced that his thinking had not been governed by what had gone on before round the 30 fences of Britain's sternest challenge to racehorses. 'This year I thought that what I do every day of the week would work for the National as well,' he said.

This meant a removal of the moans that usually accompany an assessment of those that have performed well in the race. Nick Gaselee, the trainer of last year's winner, Party Politics, provided a bleary reaction of disappointment when given morning news of his gelding's weight, but was later 'satisfied'; Toby Balding, whose Romany King finished runner-up in 1992, was even pleased with his nine-year- old's allocation of 10st 7lb. 'I thought he would probably get 10st 10lb and could even have 11st,' he said.

Romany King's next venture, when financial support may be unwise, is a week on Saturday at Newbury. 'Dare I say, it will be a 'sharpener',' Balding said.

The trainer, like most of his trade at yesterday's official weights announcement, applauds the recent modifications to Aintree's fences, the levelling and filling in of Becher's Brook and the relaxation in stiffness of the other obstacles.

'We saw the course last year and sensible horses jumped well and were not frightened by it,' Balding said. 'It's difficult enough to be still a challenge and fair enough that you are not asking the impossible of horses.'

But there is an underlying feeling that the race has been demeaned in some way by the removal of perilous threat. That here, for once, troupers will be justified when they say it used to be harder in the old days.

Along the way has come the destruction of a truth that may have been misplaced anyway, the belief that the ideal horse for the Grand National was an animal suited by 2 1/2 miles. Trainers now consider the race is run at such a pace that these horses do not get the breather they used to.

The transformation of Aintree from a survival course has done nothing to dampen public attention, however. Sports viewing figures for 1992 show that the National attracted the largest single televised audience of 16.8m viewers, ahead of both the Olympics and the FA Cup Final.

There were plenty of suggestions yesterday as to the identity of the horse that will attract the cameras' attention in two months' time. Balding may run his Gold Cup winner Cool Ground, along with automatic foreign top weight, the Czech horse Quirinus, but reserves his main support for Romany King.

'He is a supreme athlete and a lovely jumper,' the trainer said. 'He proved last year that the obstacles are no hindrance and he has as big a chance as anyone.'

Gordon Richards, twice a winner with Lucius (1978) and Hallo Dandy (1984), believes Twin Oaks has the same aptitude as his Greystoke predecessors. 'This will be his last year in racing and I think he can go out on a winning note. He is the right, adaptable type, a sensible and intelligent horse.'

Perhaps the most difficult choice awaits a man who has never won the race, the champion jockey Peter Scudamore, who has eight horses from the Martin Pipe yard to choose from at this stage.

Scudamore suggests Captain Dibble, Cahervillahow and Nick The Brief as the most attractive propositions from outside the stable and, surprisingly, veers away from the only Pipe entry in the handicap proper, Chatam. 'He is not a horse who struck me immediately as a National horse,' he said. Scudamore's Pipe fancy is Riverside Boy.

Kim Bailey, a victor three years ago with Mr Frisk, expects great things from Kings Fountain, despite the horse's failure to complete on two occasions this season. The Lambourn trainer, like many of his counterparts, considers the Grand National a much-changed, and easier, race than before. 'It's now a 4 1/2 mile handicap over slightly different fences,' he said.

(Photograph and chart showing weights and betting for the National omitted)