An intriguing contender with a superb Aintree record was confirmed in the mix yesterday for next month's Grand National, though his tilt at the John Smith's-sponsored prize could hardly be termed no-nonsense. Five days ago Tidal Bay finished sixth in the Gold Cup, albeit 23 lengths behind the winner Long Run. As is his style, he was almost tailed off early but once he had condescended to put his racing head on, nothing stayed on up the finishing hill more strongly.
The enigmatic 10-year-old's talent often seems to exceed his enthusiasm; his trainer, Howard Johnson, is now hoping the quirky gelding and the National's quirky fences will be a match made in heaven. "He's come out of Cheltenham grand," said Johnson, "he didn't overexert himself there and he's bouncing. He's jumping as well as ever and those big fences and that longer trip might just be the ticket."
Tidal Bay has a fine and varied record at the past five Grand National meetings, including runner-up in a bumper, victories in a novice hurdle and a top-level two-mile novice chase and last year fourth to Big Buck's in a Grade One three-mile hurdle. He is set to carry 11st 9lb in the National, with only last year's winner, Don't Push It, above him in the handicap. "He's got lots of weight," added Johnson, "but he comes alight in races he's never run in before."
Tidal Bay, one of 74 still engaged in the National, prefers some ease in the ground and can be backed at 50-1. What A Friend, 12 lengths and two places in front of him at Cheltenham, is vying for third favouritism, behind Irish raiders The Midnight Club and Oscar Time, at around 14-1. And one certainty is that What A Friend's part-owner Sir Alex Ferguson would like to take some glory at Liverpool this year.
Since his Gold Cup effort, What A Friend has been perceived by the market as Paul Nicholls's best chance of winning his first National. Big Fella Thanks, trained by Nicholls when fourth last year but since transferred to Ferdy Murphy, tested the Aintree turf again yesterday in a canter on the course. "He's strengthened up," reported Murphy, "and his two latest prep runs have gone exactly to plan."
Pantxoa (4.05 Warwick) There was no disgrace in trying to give nearly a stone to a smart rival last time and, now that earplugs seemed to have helped him settle, may prove well-treated on his handicap debut.
Youngstown (2.10 Haydock) Slithering down the ratings and now back to his last winning mark; may appreciate the application of headgear.
One to watch
Despite losing her bridle at Kelso on Monday and her rider his irons, Cool Baranca (D Sayer) was still on terms when she ducked out at the final hurdle.
Where the money's going
Ladbrokes report that in the novelty Budget speech phrase market the name of the Gold Cup winner, Long Run, has been backed from 6-1 to 4-1.