If the racecourse is any guide, the Celtic Tiger might just be creeping back out of the long grass.
The John Smith's Grand National was certainly a reliable barometer of the boom years in Ireland: following a notorious drought between L'Escargot in 1975 and Bobbyjo in 1999, the Irish then came up with six winners in nine years. They have not had one since Silver Birch in 2007, but events at Cheltenham last month suggest that they can once again afford to hang on to good horses. At the Festival they outscored the home team 14 to 13, and all the signs are that they can consolidate those gains at Aintree today.
The three horses contesting favouritism are all trained over the water. On His Own unquestionably looks the most likely winner among the three, but those looking for bigger odds are also counselled to look west. For perhaps the most tempting value of all concerns a horse who has escorted On His Own over to Merseyside.
Quel Esprit is also stabled with Ireland's champion trainer, Willie Mullins, who has always treated him as one of his elite performers. Indeed, this is the first time Quel Esprit has run in a handicap – where weights are allotted in accordance with perceived merit in the hope of levelling out competition. The grey contested championship races at the Cheltenham Festival in each new discipline: a bumper, a novice hurdle and a novice chase. Last year he returned a fourth time, for the Gold Cup itself, after winning Ireland's top trial, the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown in January. But he had to be withdrawn in the morning, and did not seem quite at his best in two subsequent starts. Resurfacing this season only in the Hennessy, he shaped very nicely against top-class horses until tiring late in the heavy ground, and comes here fresh.
Now it is true that Quel Esprit did take a couple of falls in his novice days. But Mullins was staggered, declaring him the most natural jumper of all his novices, and put it down to sheer bad luck. Certainly a buoyant approach to his fences was a hallmark of his Hennessy win, helping him to put them to the sword from the front. It is easy to picture him holding a handy position with comfort, not least on this better ground, and odds of 50-1 look too big for such a classy horse.
Another price that appeals strongly is 25-1 against Rare Bob. His young rider, Bryan Cooper, evokes Ruby Walsh and Paul Carberry when they announced themselves in this race. Cooper is another born to ride over these fences, and his youthful confidence is perfectly complemented by the sage and seasoned trainer of his mount today. Dessie Hughes has a fine record over the big fences – albeit so far thwarted in the National itself, Black Apalachi obliged to settle for second in 2010 – and Rare Bob seems to have a very lenient weight for his third visit here.
Sent on reconnaissance last winter, he took well to the fences but ultimately faded in very heavy going. The National itself proved a non-event, brought down at the fifth, and Hughes patiently regrouped for this year. He did not run him over fences until the weights were set, and has been pleased by both spins since. With the going much more suitable now, Rare Bob must only answer a lingering question about his stamina, having arguably looked low on fuel when fourth in the Irish National in his youth.
Those reluctant to take that kind of chance are warmly commended On His Own, who really looks a bespoke fit for the race and could arguably be a still shorter price. Last year On His Own had cruised into contention on the second circuit when distracted by a loose one approaching Becher's and clipping the top of the fence. Mullins has had today in mind ever since, and seemed pleasantly astonished that the horse proved able to win a warm-up spin over hurdles. Very lightly raced, On His Own should be entering his prime and has a dual National winner on his back.
The 2012 winner has retired but the second, third and fourth are all back with obvious chances. Sunnyhillboy admittedly has a tougher task at the weights and requires something of a leap of faith, having barely been sighted in the meantime, but Seabass could hold out longer if ridden a little more conservatively. Cappa Bleu may yet beat them both, however, having been left with a lot to do after being hampered early last year.
He leads a strong Welsh challenge that also includes Teaforthree, who looks an ideal type to take to this challenge, leaving the best of the English as Imperial Commander. A former Gold Cup winner, he is getting on in years but could yet outclass horses to whom he would have had to concede much more weight in his prime.
Lost Glory could go well at a very big price, but the shortlist is completed by two more Irish runners under great riders. Colbert Station arrives on a roll for Tony McCoy, while Chicago Grey looks dangerously weighted, having bounced back to form after a wind operation. He is ridden by Carberry and trained by Gordon Elliott – the last man to win this for Ireland.
One way or another, Elliott may have to win it himself to retain that distinction tonight.
Aintree picks: Our experts' tips for the big race
1 Quel Esprit (50-1)
2 On His Own (7-1)
3 Rare Bob (25-1)
4 Cappa Bleu (12-1)
James Lawton, Chief Sports Writer
1 Colbert Station (11-1)
2 On His Own (7-1)
3 Cappa Bleu (12-1)
4 Sunnyhill Boy (20-1)
Sue Montgomery, Racing Writer
1 On His Own (7-1)
2 Rare Bob (25-1)
3 Chicago Grey (14-1)
4 Teaforthree (20-1)
John Cobb, Racing Post
1 Cappa Bleu (12-1)
2 Ballabriggs (20-1)
3 Soll (40-1)
4 Seabass (10-1)