Racing / The Grand National: Master Oats can see Williamson home and dry: A rider who has been in hot water will not be out of his depth. Richard Edmondson wades through the National field

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THE Grand National, declared void 12 months ago after two false starts, is in danger of being lost to the weather today for the first time in its history after persistent and torrential rain at Aintree yesterday turned the going from good to soft to heavy.

Several trainers and jockeys expressed doubts about the prospect of racing taking place today, although officials at the track were adamant that the race was not under threat and that the course would be inspected only if there was heavy rain overnight. They planned to issue a statement at 6am announcing their contingency arrangements if there is a need to postpone the race. They refused to comment on speculation that the race could be put back to Monday.

The forecast is for a dry start, though there is a possibility of showers and snow.

FOR 38 jockeys today, winning the Grand National would make the 1993-94 jumps season the campaign of a lifetime. But for one other it will merely be a salve on a year to forget.

For Norman Williamson the season was blighted when he collected a ban that removed him from the Cheltenham Festival and two winners, including the Champion Hurdle, at racing's annual championships.

'Everybody I met at Cheltenham told me to look on the bright side and that I might win a National,' he says. 'But I still think harshly of the stewards that banned me because Cheltenham is Cheltenham. I wouldn't complain about winning a National and it would round off the season for me, but I've lost a Champion Hurdle and I'll always think I've been denied.'

It is peculiar that a man who perhaps will least appreciate victory is, according to the betting, the most likely to win. Williamson will today partner Master Oats, who has jumped from a point of 14-1 a week ago down to 6-1 favouritism. But when his rider conjures up a single image in his mind, it is not of the gelding sailing over the last here with an unassailable lead but of a desperate moment at the Festival.

'I was up in the Mandarin Bar watching the Champion Hurdle on television,' he says. 'I thought from a long way out Flakey Dove was going to win and when she crossed the line I felt terrible. It hurt. In this game you've always got to look to the future, but that will take a long time to forget.'

Amnesia, however, will be speeded along if Master Oats fulfils his promise this afternoon. The least experienced runner with just nine runs in his log, the eight-year-old won in compelling style at Kempton last month, pulling 15 lengths clear of his nearest rival.

'Kempton was a new experience for him with all those runners, but once he had jumped two fences everything settled down,' Williamson says. 'He was always travelling and jumping well, and from then on the race was over.'

With a different challenge again today, the jockey is most fearful of the opening, strange seconds for his horse. 'It's going to be the first two fences again,' he says. 'If he gets over those he'll be all right, and then it will be down to the old plan of schooling round for the first two miles and then starting to ride a race on him after that. He should just take me there.'

Williamson already has a pedigree in the event, having completed on his only three rides, including last year's void race, and so does Master Oats's trainer, Kim Bailey.

The Lambourn man won four years ago with Mr Frisk and has prepared this year's model over an ersatz National open ditch on the home gallops. 'He's inexperienced and in a perfect world we would wait another year,' Bailey said. 'But I can say he's in very good form.'

Not least among Master Oats's attributes is his ability to handle rain-soaked ground and the two-by-two weather will help him greatly.

However, there are other runners who will appreciate the dripping turf. These include the amateur-ridden Double Silk, who, like Master Oats, has the beating of another 'mudder', Moorcroft Boy, on the form-book, and Fiddlers Pike.

Victory for the last named, which would establish the 51- year-old Devon grandmother Rosemary Henderson as the oldest jockey to win the race, would be outrageous enough to make Velvet Brown's success look like a documentary. However, it is not difficult to envisage the sure-footed Fiddlers Pike, at 13 the oldest horse in the race, plodding round.

Double Silk is also a 'story' horse, which many insist is the prerequisite for a winner, as he represents the retired dairy farmer Reg Wilkins and a jockey still active in that business, Ron Treloggen. More usefully, his jumping has been the major feature of his armoury from the day he first set out in a point-to-point and carried his pilot over a five-bar gate.

The deluge, which has accompanied another one in the betting market which will see a record pounds 75m wagered on the race, will also aid Just So. Usually a horse who could only be considered if the Paris-Dakar rally was opened up to thoroughbreds, he must now enter calculations.

Conditions though have all but rubbed out the aspirations of others. The diminutive Young Hustler may have only his ears above ground level, while The Fellow will have his trademark speed blunted. In any event, the French horse, who attempts to become the first from his country to win here since 1867, competes only as an afterthought following his Gold Cup triumph and is unlikely to be the highly-tuned beast he was at Cheltenham.

Ireland has eight entries, but the form book says that none of them can win, while Martin Pipe, the champion trainer, sends out five but considers none will finish in the frame. Rely instead on the horses who have proved themselves in the wet, and rely particularly on Master Oats to dry up the tears of Norman Williamson.

----------------------------------------------------------------- THE EXPERTS' PREDICTIONS ----------------------------------------------------------------- RICHARD EDMONDSON 1. Master Oats 2. Double Silk 3. Moorcroft Boy 4. The Fellow BEST LONGSHOT Just So GREG WOOD 1. Moorcroft Boy 2. Just So 3. Mr Boston 4. Double Silk BEST LONGSHOT Laura's Beau -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)