Irish threaten to ruin McCain Aintree repeat

Mullins' strong hand leads biggest challenge to a famous family's grip on the Grand National

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You can call Aintree many things, but a level playing field is not one of them. Few other races, after all, disclose as many random, chaotic dimensions as the John Smith's Grand National. It seems somewhat credulous, then, to invest too much faith in the clinical process by which the official handicapper strives to guarantee each of the 40 starters an identical chance.

None the less, as ever, the publication of the weights yesterday reminded the sport's professional community that it is precisely its anomalies that preserve the National as the most famous steeplechase on the planet. For its only true equality rests in the fact that each horse has the same chance of being brought down at the first fence on 14 April.

That holds true, despite the latest emasculation of the course's most ruthless challenges – something that will, no doubt, gradually contribute to a broader transformation. For while it is only a handicap, a purse of £975,000, approximately double that offered in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, is certainly commensurate with its status among laymen. And the profile of this year's race suggests a corresponding improvement in quality. Phil Smith, the handicapper, noted that the average rating is 144 – compared with 130 eight years ago. Five of the top six in the handicap, moreover, will contest the Gold Cup itself before any decision is made on their participation.

The trainer of the sixth, however, has only had one day in mind for the past 10 months. Ballabriggs, not seen since winning the race last April, resurfaces for a gallop at Haydock this weekend, and a fortnight later heads to Kelso for the same conditions chase in which he was beaten last year. It is a long time – a decade, in fact – since any National winner won another race under Rules. While one or two have in the meantime been placed back at Aintree, few graduated from so graphically distressing a race as the one that cost the lives of two runners – not to mention the one that prompted such a ham-fisted revision of the whip rules.

Donald McCain, Ballabriggs' trainer, heeds the consequent challenges for the race rather more readily than did his late father, but insists that any criticism must be well-informed. "I'd like the people who complained about the race last year to have seen Ballabriggs the next morning," he said. "He looked a million dollars. He had a long summer holiday in a field with Mr Hemmings' [owner Trever Hemmings] other National winner, Hedgehunter, and has come back with no ill effects at all. He's in great nick." With 11st 9lb, Ballabriggs will have 9lb more to carry than last year. "I've no problem with that," McCain said. "He's earned it. He's a National winner, and a good one – and he's a big, strong horse."

Only Synchronised, with 11st 10lb, must shoulder a greater burden. The other top weights include Quel Esprit, one of a dozen entries made by Willie Mullins. A Grade One success at Leopardstown on Sunday leaves him with 11st 7lb – the same weight as Burton Port, who returns from a long absence against his stablemate Long Run at Newbury on Friday.

A lot of water must still pass under the bridge before Aintree – and a fair bit of it may have to go on to the track, too, the race being scheduled so late this year – and it will doubtless remain a hopeless puzzle on the morning itself. Even so, it is hard to resist one or two of the odds now on offer. You can make a strong case for a handful of the Mullins runners – the man himself appeared most positive about On His Own, Prince De Beauchene and Quiscover Fontaine – and the Irish have several other very plausible contenders. Betfred and Paddy Power both offer 11-4 against an Irish-trained winner, and that looks a sensible bet even in a race that so reliably turns everything on its head, from expectations to jockeys.

Power's further offer of 16-1 against Katie Walsh or Nina Carberry winning may seem more fanciful. But there is not the remotest doubt about the competence of either to make history, as the first female winner, and both have feasible prospects already through Seabass and Organisedconfusion. The chances are that both women, on the day, will have mounts that individually start shorter than 16-1.

Grand National weights

14-1 Junior 11st 2lb

16-1 Ballabriggs 11st 9lb

16-1 Synchronised 11st 10lb

20-1 Midnight Chase 11st 8lb

20-1 On His Own 10st 11lb

20-1 Prince De Beauchene 10st 6lb

20-1 Quel Esprit 11st 7lb

20-1 Roberto Goldback 11st 4lb

20-1 West End Rocker 10st 12lb

25-1 Apt Approach 11st 1lb

25-1 Burton Port 11st 7lb

25-1 Calgary Bay 11st 6lb

25-1 Cappa Bleu 10st 10lb

25-1 Chicago Grey 10st 13lb

25-1 Deep Purple 11st 3lb

25-1 Hold On Julio 10st 7lb

25-1 Little Josh 11st 1lb

25-1 Planet Of Sound 11st 5lb

25-1 Roulez Cool 10st 5lb

25-1 Seabass 10st 12lb

25-1 Shakalakaboomboom 10st 12lb

25-1 The Midnight Club 10st 8lb

25-1 Treacle 10st 8lb

33-1 and upwards others

Odds: Betfred

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Badger Foot (3.10 Kelso) Back down to a very good mark now and tongue-tied for the first time since last summer, when a striking winner round this course; better going also likely to suit.

Next best

Prince Blackthorn (2.40 Kelso) Irish import made an eye-catching debut for this stable at Wetherby last month and is readily pardoned a disappointing next run, in bad ground just seven days later.

One to watch

Redera (Tony Martin) ended a disappointing spell when a close third at Leopardstown on Sunday, patiently ridden, and is entitled to come on for the run after a break.

Where the money's going

The Giant Bolster is 10-1 from 12-1 with William Hill for the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury on Friday.