Hopefuls show Grand designs

Last three Aintree winners and Gold Cup hero head entries for the National

For those who like a sense of history with their racing, forget that business on the edge of the rural Cotswolds next month and fast forward to a Liverpool suburb in April. When Red Splash won the first Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1924, there were already 82 Grand Nationals in the formbook and almost as many Aintree fairy tales in folklore. The search for the next legend began in earnest yesterday, when 112 entries were confirmed for the 163rd running of the world's most famous steeplechase.

It was numerically the lowest initial subscription for 10 years for the John Smith's-sponsored marathon, which carries a record £925,000 purse this year. But if quantity was lacking, quality is not. The drop in numbers is a likely reflection of the fact that the race is no longer the province of hopeless underachievers unlikely to get a run from out of the handicap.

The list of contenders includes the last three winners – Mon Mome, Comply Or Die and Silver Birch – and the four who followed the first two named home last April, My Will, State Of Play, Cerium and Big Fella Thanks. Pride of place among a host of horses with a Grade One victory on their CVs is undoubtedly taken by the 2006 Gold Cup hero War Of Attrition, who is scheduled to bow out in the great race.

Phil Smith, the British Horseracing Authority's chief handicapper, was impressed with the strength in depth. "There are more horses rated 140 or above among these entries," he said, "than in any of the years I've been involved."

The champion trainer Paul Nicholls has, famously, yet to win a National and his charges Tricky Trickster and Big Fella Thanks currently head the betting. The market, though, will spring properly into life on Tuesday week, when Smith reveals the weights he has set, with the so-called Aintree factor woven into the ratings, for the 12th time.

It is six years since a horse with a rating less than 134 made the cut (notwithstanding his starting price of 100-1, Mon Mome was, with a mark of 148, the highest-rated winner in 12 runnings) and this afternoon at Clonmel Whinstone Boy, winner two weeks ago of one of Ireland's most reliable Aintree trials, the Thyestes Chase, turns out again to try to climb the rankings from his current mark of 131. A good win would put his trainer Jimmy Mangan back on the road that ended in glory with Monty's Pass seven years ago.

A couple of hours later, in a very different arena, another dream may take flight again when Crowded House, made winter favourite for last year's 2,000 Guineas and Derby after his explosive victory in the Racing Post Trophy as a juvenile, appears in public for the first time since his sixth place at Epsom behind the one who did prove to be the wonder horse, Sea The Stars. The Brian Meehan-trained colt turns out in the nine-furlong Group Three contest at Meydan, the first race to be staged on turf at the new state-of-the-art Dubai track.

Turf account: Sue Montgomery

Nap

Pearlysteps (1.40 Towcester) Built on his seasonal return to action with a battling second and will not be fazed by one of the stiffest two miles in the country on soft ground.

Next best

Topsham Belle (1.50 Wincanton) Beat subsequent winner on her hurdles debut and should be capable of carrying her penalty in this company.

One to watch

Edgbriar (P R Webber) Produced an excellent effort when runner-up in a very decent novice chase at Cheltenham on Saturday.

Where the money's going

Money Trix is 7-2 from 4-1 with Paddy Power for Sunday's Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Leopardstown.

Chris McGrath's Nap

Hellfire Club (3.20 Wincanton).

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