A purse of £900,000 for a race tends to concentrate the mind and the classy entries revealed yesterday for this year's Grand National include not just one Gold Cup winner, but two. The reigning Cheltenham champion Denman is joined by War Of Attrition, who took the Festival showpiece three years ago, on a list of 123 that must be whittled down to 40 by 4 April.
Gold Cup heroes are rare enough birds at Aintree. The last to try his luck in the National was Master Oats 12 years ago, though perversely the last time two did, in 1995, there were actually three of their ilk in the field: Master Oats, in the season of his Cheltenham triumph, finished seventh, with Garrison Savannah 9th and Cool Ground 11th.
But past winners of the National commonly come back and the past two, Comply Or Die and Silver Birch, are on course for another go at their specialist subject. Neither has achieved much since their glory day, but for different reasons. Comply Or Die, who led home King Johns Castle and Snowy Morning nine months ago, has run twice, rather sulkily, this term and will be trying to put those two disappointing efforts behind him at Haydock next month, with blinkers reapplied.
Silver Birch has not appeared at all since his gallant narrow defeat of McKelvey and Slim Pickings, having picked up an injury. But he is due to start his road back to Aintree on Saturday, and in so doing will be returning to his roots, the Irish point-to-point field.
The 12-year-old opened his winning account in a maiden at Inch seven years ago and, with three years with Paul Nicholls and his Grand National success for Gordon Elliott intervening, is now set for a ladies' contest at Nenagh in Co Tipperary, with one of England's finest, three-time Yorkshire area champion Jackie Coward, in the saddle.
The 23-year-old entrusted with Silver Birch's eagerly-awaited comeback admitted her call-up came out of the blue. "I'd met Gordon at the Doncaster sales last year," said Coward, Mick Easterby's grand-daughter, "and though plans for me to ride some of his horses over here didn't come to anything, we kept in touch. But this was a complete surprise. He asked me if I'd be free to ride one in an open race this Saturday, and I said I could. That was exciting enough, as I've not ridden in Ireland. Then he told me the name of the horse."
The gelding was given the go-ahead after a satisfactory workout yesterday morning. "We're looking forward to getting him back out," said Elliott. "He'll come on for the race, but he's in good order and will run respectably. In the ladies' open he'll carry only 11st 7lb and there might not be that many runners either and Nenagh is a good, big, galloping track which will suit."
Most of the usual suspects in the staying handicap division are among the National entries. Nicholls, who has yet to win a National, has put forward 10 as backup to Denman, including Big Fella Thanks, Star De Mohaison, Gwanako and My Will. Comply Or Die is one of seven from David Pipe's yard, a squad that also numbers Hennessy Gold Cup winner Madison du Berlais.
For the home side, other names of note include Cloudy Lane, Imperial Commander, Exotic Dancer, Joe Lively and Air Force One; for the Irish there are Notre Pere, Hear The Echo and Black Apalachi, plus last year's runner-up and third, though sadly not fourth-placed Slim Pickings, fatally injured at home this week.
King Johns Castle, one of seven who could try to break his owner JP McManus's Aintree maiden, is another on his way back from physical problems. "He's now back in full training," reported trainer Arthur Moore yesterday. "He's taking his work well and we are hopeful that we can get him to Aintree again. He'll probably have a couple of runs over hurdles before then."
Yesterday's entry starts the build-up to the John Smith's-sponsored marathon; the next stage is the announcement of the weights in 12 days time. Denman, rated more than a stone better than anything else, is the early favourite, ahead of Irish National winner Hear The Echo, Butler's Cabin, Comply Or Die and Snowy Morning.
This afternoon at Wincanton Tony McCoy, three short of 3,000 winners in Britain and Ireland, continues his quest to the round figure, and at Nad Al Sheba Andrew Balding-trained Banknote will become the Queen's first runner in Dubai.
John Smith's Grand National (Coral's ante-post odds): 8-1 Denman, 14-1 Comply Or Die, 16-1 Hear The Echo, 20-1 Black Apalachi, Butler's Cabin, Character Building, Cloudy Lane, Notre Pere, Snowy Morning, 25-1 Garde Champetre, Hot Weld, My Will, Notre Pere, Rambling Minster, Star De Mohaison, 28-1 and upwards others.