So many hazards lie beyond the control of even the most nimble horse or rider in the John Smith's Grand National that it may well make sense to seek safety in numbers at Aintree on Saturday. Certainly, odds of 9-4 against an Irish winner look a very palatable alternative to the bigger odds available against various individual fancies, in what looks a formidable collective challenge this year. Since winning four Nationals between 2003 and 2007, the Irish have endured a three-year hiatus. But they have just celebrated a record-breaking Cheltenham Festival, and account for 13 of the 40 horses currently guaranteed a run on Saturday. These include three of the first four in the betting – The Midnight Club, Backstage and Oscar Time – as well as a series of very feasible outsiders.
Admittedly, the pair sent over from Co Kildare by Dessie Hughes might not be obviously eligible for that latter group, but it would be typical of Aintree were he finally to crack the race just when it looks as though his moment might have passed. As a jockey, he never made it even as far as Becher's Brook. His best chance was Davy Lad in 1977, just 16 days after they had won the Cheltenham Gold Cup. "But he refused at the fourth, I think it was," Hughes said yesterday. "And I could tell it wasn't going to happen even before then. National winners don't often come from the Gold Cup. They've had enough."
As a trainer, he has come a good deal closer, without quite managing to suggest that it might ever be a lucky race for him. Black Apalachi ran his heart out to be second to Don't Push It last year, 20 lengths clear of the third; and had been tanking along in the lead when discarding his rider at Becher's second time round the previous year. Unfortunately, he has suffered a tendon injury and, though Hughes hopes he will be back, he will be 13 next year.
"He was probably very unlucky two years ago," Hughes said. "He did appear to be going very well, anyway. And a few years ago we had Timbera. He'd won the Irish National, and was favourite, but scoped dirty a week before the race and couldn't go. But in fairness the Grand National wouldn't really be a lucky race for too many people. And I'm lucky to have two more to run this time."
At 11, Vic Venturi and In Compliance are both seasoned campaigners – and both ran over the big fences at last year's meeting. Vic Venturi did not get round in the National, but had won the Becher Chase the previous autumn, while In Compliance took really well to the obstacles when sixth in the Topham Chase. "They're ready," Hughes said. "Vic Venturi was going well when he was brought down last year and has been trained for nothing else but this since. We ran him at the Maze [Down Royal] five weeks ago and he ran well enough on the heavy ground, as he'd want it good. In Compliance is definitely on a fair mark, if he found his form. He was unlucky the last day [unseating at halfway at Cork] but he had won nicely at Thurles the time before and has experience of the course, from the Topham last year. He does look nicely in, with 10st 5lb. They're not young horses, but it's no race for a young horse. You want them to be 10, at least."
Leighton Aspell rides In Compliance, while Andrew Lynch partners Vic Venturi (11st 6lb) following the defection yesterday of Notre Pere, for whom the conditions promise to be too fast. Synchronised, another winner of the Welsh National in the mud, was also missing from the 65 acceptors.
It is rather poignant to see Paddy Brennan without a mount, just days after announcing that he had turned freelance – his former employer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, having fast-tracked his sons, Sam and now Willie, during Brennan's tenure as stable jockey. Sam rides Hello Bud, as he did when fifth last year, but Twiston-Davies has booked Wayne Hutchinson and Aidan Coleman respectively for his other runners, Roll Along (a possible absentee after lameness at the weekend) and Grand Slam Hero. The owners of Imperial Commander have committed to Brennan, but their horse will be sitting out the meeting this time.
Pegasus Prince (3.40 Pontefract)
Much improved over hurdles since joining Keith Reveley, beaten by just one rival in three starts since the turn of the year, and is able to take advantage of an ancient rating on his return to the Flat.
Tribal Myth (2.10 Pontefract)
Stable has made a flying start to the turf campaign and this one showed he can go well fresh when beating a well treated rival on his reappearance last season.
One to watch
Informed Award (John Gosden) has a good pedigree and made an encouraging debut at Windsor yesterday, short of room but picking up nicely for third once switched.