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Arbor Supreme offers shade of value to stand tallest at 20-1

Irish challenger can rise above an unlucky exit last year to sort wood from the trees

National by name, national by nature, it is the one race that reliably dismantles the mystery of the Turf. How could it be otherwise, when 40 horses entwine so many different lives in the same dreams and dreads?

The Derby is for better horses – much faster ones, anyway – but they tend to be owned by sheikhs and magnates. If far more people bet on the John Smith's Grand National today, than at Epsom in June, that's partly because they already have a stake in the principle of proceedings. A horse can arrive here from nearly anywhere, so long as he is bold and brave enough.

Admittedly, some jockeys will be wearing the silks of extremely wealthy men. On the other hand, one of the owners of Big Fella Thanks is a hairdresser; Surface To Air is owned by a carpenter; Golden Kite runs in the colours of a country doctor from Co Cork; while half of Backstage is divided between the staff who care for him at Gordon Elliott's yard in Co Meath, each having paid €100 (£88) to buy their share.

And even the most famous of all the owners involved today brings a suitably common touch. Sir Alex Ferguson has learnt a lot about racing over the years – not all of it, notoriously, to his advantage – but when you hear him talk about horses, you hear undiluted the man he might have been, had football never taken him out of Govan. There will be other 69-year-olds, retired from the shipyards and passing their afternoons in a betting shop, who back What A Friend today through an affinity that has nothing to do with Manchester United.

Ferguson himself will be attending to matters at Old Trafford. He will hardly contrive to see the race live, halfway through the second half, but perhaps someone will smuggle him a radio if Fulham appear to be under control. As he said himself, after What A Friend ran fourth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup last month, that's exactly what gives him a kick about his horses – the fact that events, for a change, are totally beyond his control.

Aintree, of course, can take that to uncomfortable extremes. With so many hazards – whether immovable objects, like Becher's Brook, or the irresistible forces falling or changing direction in your path – even the very best riders can find themselves helpless. It took the most prolific one in history 15 exasperating attempts to win the race, albeit in doing so he finally won broader admiration for his unprecedented achievements.

Tony McCoy duly returns today as BBC Sports Personality of the Year to assist Don't Push It in his attempt to become the first back-to-back Grand National winner since Red Rum himself. McCoy's mount looked to be coming back to the boil at Cheltenham last month and could well go off favourite, despite top weight.

At 20-1, however, perhaps the bet this time round is a horse rejected by McCoy, as retained jockey to J P McManus. McCoy was clearly vindicated in spurning Arbor Supreme last year, but the horse had taken well to the fences until hampered and losing his jockey at The Chair. And it does seem mystifying why he should be twice the odds of the two horses he split in their rehearsal at Fairyhouse in February.

True, the one that beat him has an excellent profile. Likewise stabled with the champion trainer of Ireland, Willie Mullins, The Midnight Club is ridden by one of the all-time Aintree masters in Ruby Walsh, and has long promised to come into his own over this kind of distance. But the fact is that he only narrowly held the stronger finish of Arbor Supreme at Fairyhouse, and is 10lb worse off today.

Back in third was Oscar Time, who jumped superbly and travelled best for a long way, only to flatten out under pressure. His trainer believes him fitter today, but the longer trip will remain an issue to those who felt Oscar Time did not really see things out in the Irish National last year, when worn down by Bluesea Cracker.

The latter has shaped well this winter, but conditions will be faster than she cares for – and much the same is true of Silver By Nature. In contrast, Arbor Supreme adores good going. Anyone who saw his first start on spring ground, at Punchestown in his novice season, will still remember the way he thrashed Black Apalachi in a marathon handicap. And that, of course, was the horse who was breathing down the neck of Don't Push It here last year.

Form from 2008 is a little ancient to be worth dwelling on today, but it is a reminder that Arbor Supreme is far more seasoned than many of his rivals – and experience remains critical round here. In fact, as many as nine of the 14 who finished last year had all completed the course at least once in the past. State Of Play commands respect, on that basis, having been nervelessly kept off the track since last year, as he is best fresh, but his stamina has not looked copper-bottomed even in making the frame twice.

The same anxiety undermines Big Fella Thanks but another who faded last year, Character Building, could see things out better this time. He used up plenty of energy to challenge from off the pace, and had in any case had an interrupted preparation. His stable is in top form just now.

Becauseicouldntsee would be warmly recommended but for a setback that has kept him off the track since Christmas, while In Compliance looks very well treated at the weights, if lasting the trip. Ballabriggs should go well for the stable for ever associated with Red Rum, though his stamina is uncertain, and Skippers Brig has not received adequate credit for beating him in their trial at Kelso.

What A Friend and Tidal Bay both have their quirks, as well as a touch of class. Each seems certain to come up with a fairly extreme response to this challenge, though whether positive or negative is hard to say.

The heavily backed Backstage has been given an artful preparation, and will get an artful ride, too, while Killyglen and Dooneys Gate are outsiders who could go well. Majestic Concorde adds class, if not experience, to a formidable Irish challenge, but it can be Arbor Supreme who raises the tricolour highest.