International diplomacy is hard.
As the UK threatens war on Spain and pink passports, so British racing has sparred frostily with their Irish counterparts.
“What I'd call the National now is a pre-Brexit, post-Brexit handicap,” railed Eddie O’Leary, prominent manager and brother to Ryanair boss Michael. Accusations of what amounted to a handicapping ‘tax’ led that outfit to withdraw their most prominent horses from the Grand National as last year’s trophy still glittered in their cabinet.
The debate continued into the Cheltenham Festival, yet such was the Irish dominance over the week’s handicaps and the festival itself the system began to appear if anything lenient.
You won't see Theresa May sharing a drink with Enda Kenny after conceding defeat, but that's precisely what many British racegoers jovially did with their Irish counterparts after Cheltenham.
Whatever political analogy they might use next, the O’Learys and Gigginstown will still be no less determined to record back to back wins in the National and appear to have left some live chances still in the race.
Among the 40 horses tackling 30 fences and the marathon distance of over four miles are two former Irish Grand National winners, one of which has been particularly well supported in recent days - Rogue Angel.
Trained by the winner of last year’s renewal, Mouse Morris, the horse has shown little since winning the Irish equivalent in 2016. The impression is that everything has been building towards Saturday though, with Rule The World putting some quiet performances behind him when winning last year too. Sneaking in near the bottom of the handicap, any hope is supported by the fact jockey Bryan Cooper has plumped for this horse from a choice of five runners.
One that will come in for plenty of support from both sides of the Irish Sea is three-time Cheltenham Festival winner Cause of Causes. After a mightily impressive performance in the Cross Country Chase, the horse is officially ‘well in’; his place in the handicap confirmed before that win and not adjusted since.
In the saddle is Jamie Codd, whose amateur tag does him a disservice considering the quality of his riding. Two years older than when first contesting these fences, the Gordon Elliott trained gelding’s season spent jumping cross country obstacles should make him much more comfortable this time around.
For a while the most prominent Irish contender in the betting market, Cause of Causes’ fancied contenders largely come from Britain’s shores. Aintree’s local Liverpool Football Club fans will be torn between those vying for favouritism, namely Definitly Red and Vieux Lion Rouge, while anyone related to a namesake of One For Arthur won’t find odds much larger.
All three have won significant trials over the course of this season but it’s the latter that is fancied to see the fourth woman ever train a Grand National winner in Lucinda Russell. The horse ran close over the esoteric fences earlier this season and has only improved since. Jockey Derek Fox makes his comeback from injury in the nick of time for the Scottish-based horse, who is expected to give his showing on any ground.
A few years back, being the younger side of 10 may have been a concern, yet recent winners have bucked those trends after the victories of Many Clouds (eight) and Rule The World (nine). With each weight individually assigned and often compressed in order to attract higher quality horses, those at the top of the racecard have also become more appealing (again Many Clouds who carried 11 stone and nine pounds).
The race has certainly changed in the last few years, with adjustments to the handicap, entry criteria and the jumps themselves to name a few. The spectacle of the race remains unique though and no one can begrudge any winner their deserved acclaim.
As the dust settles on the race, with betting slips torn or redeemed, above all racing fans will be hoping for the safe return of all its competitors. Racing can’t shy away from the reality of its risk and adaptations to the race have seen no equine deaths from this contest since 2012. Long may that continue.
One For Arthur 14/1
Cause of Causes 14/1
Rogue Angel 25/1Reuse content