On an afternoon of mixed fortunes for Grand National contenders, Cloudy Lane produced the silver lining. After a seven-length romp in the Grimthorpe Chase, the eight-year-old is 6-1 favourite for next month's Aintree showpiece. And even if the gelding has not yet tackled the unique National fences, those closest to him are part of the fabric of the great race.
Cloudy Lane carries the colours of Trevor Hemmings, successful in 2005 with Hedgehunter, and the eight-year-old is trained by Donald McCain, whose four-time winning father Ginger needs little introduction. Red Rum was before Donald's hands-on time, but he was an integral part of Amberleigh House's preparation and now has a live chance of adding to his family's Aintree record.
The route trodden here – a three-and-a-quarter mile handicap – was the same taken by Amberleigh House before his subsequent date with immortality four years ago. But whereas his predecessor finished a staying-on fifth, Cloudy Lane put his rivals to the sword.
"All we came here for was a good solid run," the Cheshire-based McCain said. "I'd have been happy with second or third or fourth today. To win like he did was tremendous. He wouldn't have been 100 per cent fit, but he does love his work and his job."
With a strong headwind blowing down the long Town Moor straight, Jason Maguire kept Cloudy Lane covered until sending him to the front two fences out and a spectacular leap at the final obstacle sealed the issue. "It was a proper test," said the rider, "as they went a good gallop. I was travelling well all the way, and although mine is a very neat, clever jumper he was enjoying himself so much he just let fly at the last."
Progressive Cloudy Lane, who had 11st 9lb on his back yesterday but is set to carry just 10st 8lb in the National, will not run again before the big one. "I'll be ordering a bale of cotton-wool," added McCain. "He's a pleasure to have around; you keep asking him questions and he keeps coming up with the answers."
The disappointment yesterday – and a rare enough one for the Paul Nicholls stable, on the mark with Natal in Newbury's feature yesterday – was the performance of Mr Pointment, who had been vying for National favouritism with Cloudy Lane. The Ruby Walsh-ridden gelding made the running until backtracking rapidly in the straight and, with an early diagnosis of internal bleeding, his Aintree participation is in doubt.
But there was better from McKelvey, the Aintree runner-up 12 months ago, in an earlier hurdle race. The 10-year-old, who hurt a leg in the process of his gallant second place, faded to eighth here but delighted his connections after his long lay-off. "He travelled well until he ran out of puff," said trainer Peter Bowen. "He'll have one more run over hurdles, then it will be back to Aintree."
Exotic Dancer, who beat all but Kauto Star in last year's Gold Cup, is still on target for the Cheltenham showpiece after a satisfactory workout at home yesterday morning. The eight-year-old had a sore back in the week but showed no ill-effects as his big-race pilot Tony McCoy steered him up the Jackdaws Castle grass gallops.
Ireland's Gold Cup challenge may be boosted by Afistfullofdollars, impressive six-length winner of a Grade Two contest a week ago on only his fourth start over fences.
A supplementary entry, at a cost of £22,500 is under consideration for the Noel Meade-trained ten-year-old, whose stablemate Harchibald completed his Champion Hurdle preparation with an easy win an a 12-furlong Flat race at Dundalk on Friday night.