Racing: Tizzard's thrilling consolation

Sue Montgomery surveys the contenders and pretenders
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The Independent Online
WHEN IT comes to finding the winner of the Grand National the storybook is often as much help as the formbook. The Brothers Grimm themselves would often be hard pressed to better some of the tales generated by the historic race and Saturday's 153rd running promises to live up to the tradition of racing fact being as good as fiction.

Take the favourite, Double Thriller. Can this former star hunter chaser continue the annus mirabilis of his trainer, Paul Nicholls, and give his teenage jockey, Joe Tizzard, glorious compensation for being passed over on the stable's two Cheltenham stars, See More Business and Call Equiname, in favour of the more experienced Mick Fitzgerald?

What about Call It A Day? He would surely be an appropriately named first winner for David Nicholson - whose great-grandfather trained Freetrader to win in 1856 and Little Charley in 1858 - as he approaches the end of a distinguished career. Addington Boy, a first National runner for his trainer, Ferdy Murphy, would be a perfect vehicle to continue the rehabilitation of Nicholson's former No 1 jockey Adrian Maguire after a turbulent start to the year. And Saturday is the horse's actual 11th birthday.

The chapter on girl power offers three choices, two human, one equine. Imagine the emotion unconfined should Nahthen Lad give Jenny Pitman a third victory with her final runner in the race she has made her own. Or the satisfaction of a new queen of Aintree crowned if General Wolfe helps Venetia Williams get over the disappointment she suffered when Teeton Mill - originally bought with the National in mind - injured himself in the Gold Cup. The beautifully named mare Fiddling The Facts (by Orchestra out of Facts 'n Fancies) will be bidding to become only the 12th of her sex to win, and the first since Nickel Coin 48 years ago. She's something of a perennial bridesmaid, having been runner-up in her last three races and perhaps deserves a change of luck. Her rider, Fitzgerald, is on fire and her trainer, Nick Henderson, is surely due some good fortune at Aintree; he's had Zongalero and The Tsarevitch finish second and his last three runners, Henry Mann, Tinryland and Pashto, have fallen at the first, the last-named fatally 12 months ago.

Many a champion jockey retires without having won a National - Peter Scudamore and John Francome to name but two - but that statistic would be no more acceptable to Tony McCoy than the fact that the best of his three rides to date was to pull up three years ago on the lame Deep Bramble. Eudipe, this year's mount, would be the first French-bred winner since Lutteur in 1909 and the first as young as seven since Bogskar in 1940.

No horse would deserve to win more than top-weight Suny Bay, a most gallant runner-up for the past two years from the stable of Charlie Brooks and now a first National runner for Simon Sherwood. Previously, 13 horses have finished second twice without winning, but only one, Wyndburgh, has done so three times, in 1957, 1959 and 1962. No grey has won since Nicolaus Silver in 1961; another of the colour this year is Call It A Day's stablemate Baronet.

The last Irish winner was L'Escargot, who thwarted Red Rum's hat-trick 24 years ago. The best-fancied of this year's contingent from across the water is Bobbyjo, who is trained by L'Escargot's rider Tommy Carberry. His warm-up race last month may have been over hurdles, but the 1995 winner, Royal Athlete, took the same route.

Last year's hero, Earth Summit, who needs extreme distances to bring out his best, will be trying to become the first back-to-back winner since Red Rum in 1973 and 1974.

The increase in prize money - the National is now the world's richest steeplechase, with a guaranteed purse of at least pounds 420,000 this year - and the modification of the fences has had the effect of improving the quality of runners. During the Eighties nine horses who had taken part in the Gold Cup went on to contest the National, of whom Grittar, sixth at Cheltenham, and Rhyme `N' Reason, who fell, won.

Since 1990, no fewer than 28 Gold Cup participants have turned up at Aintree, including the Cheltenham winners Garrison Savannah (second at Aintree), Cool Ground (10th), The Fellow (fell) and Master Oats (seventh). But again, just two Gold Cup runners during that period have followed up with a National win, Miinnehoma (seventh at Cheltenham) and championship runner-up Rough Quest.

Though not much of a price, this year's Gold Cup fourth, Double Thriller, has an almost perfect profile for a National winner: right age, in the handicap, classy form. And though Tizzard is not yet a complete jockey and arguably would not have won on Nicholls' two stable stars at Cheltenham, he is very much a horseman, a most desirable quality round Aintree. Reg Wilkins' gelding can enable his trainer to become the first since Fred Rimell in 1976 (with Royal Frolic and Rag Trade) to double up in the season's two feature chases.

John Burke, on the Rimell pair, was the last jockey to win both races and if the ground remains easy the admirable, though one-paced, Fiddling The Facts will give Fitzgerald a sporting chance of following suit. But she might need another year under her girth and the revitalised Addington Boy, a staying-on fifth at Cheltenham, may prove the greatest threat this time.


1 Double Thriller

2 Addington Boy

3 Fiddling The Facts

4 Eudipe

Best long-shot: Mudahim