Lee battered but still Aintree bound

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The Independent Online

If there was a riding equivalent of Private Baldrick's bullet with his name on it, this is one of the weeks when jump jockeys would want it. The Grand National meeting starts tomorrow; there are just three racing days – and with them 33 opportunities in Britain and Ireland for a fellow to fall off and hurt himself – before the big one.

At Wetherby yesterday Graham Lee, due to ride Kilbeggan Blade on Saturday, was the latest to fall foul of the fates, catapulted over leader Wee Forbees' head at the third fence in the two and a half mile handicap chase, and then galloped over and kicked like a football by his mount.

Though able to sit up, a shaken Lee, winner of the National five years ago on Amberleigh House, was taken by stretcher to an ambulance and, after being stood down for the day by the racecourse doctor, missed his remaining mounts. But the accident was less alarming than it at first looked and he expects to be fit to partner handicap hurdler Bedlam Boy tomorrow at Aintree for Ferdy Murphy.

"He's fine," said the trainer last night. "He'll go down to Middlesbrough to have some physiotherapy at the football club, and that will set him right."

Denis O'Regan, who won his race to recover from injury after damaging his back at Ayr, celebrated his return to action after nine worrying days with a win on bold-jumping Bow School at Wetherby for Howard Johnson. The Irishman rides one of the market leaders, Black Apalachi, in the National.

With all the fabled iron grit of his breed, O'Regan had ridden through three days of back pain after his fall before calling a halt. "It hurt, but I kept riding away," he said yesterday. "The first x-ray I had showed a fracture, but it turned out to be an old one I'd apparently got when I was a teenager. But I did have badly bruised vertebra so I had to give it time, and a lot of physio.

"The break got it right and I'm absolutely 100 per cent. I had a bit of a blow after my first ride and it was great to have a winner on my first day back."

There will be a few more sweating their way towards Saturday, though for a different reason. With 74 horses remaining in the Grand National and a safety limit of 40, Zabenz, from the Philip Hobbs yard, is the last one guaranteed a run at this stage.

Those below the cut will get a run, in weight order, if there are withdrawals after tomorrow's final confirmation stage. Next in line after the five at the base of the pile on 10st 5lb is Nick Williams's charge Maljimar (10st 4lb); the next five reserves are all on 10st 3lb, but the pecking order, according to their handicap marks earned since the weights were set in February, is Companero (Howard Johnson), Pomme Tiepy (Willie Mullins), Niche Market (Bob Buckler), Mattock Ranger (Noel Meade) and Iron Man (Peter Bowen).

The Mullins name is already on the Grand National roll of honour, courtesy of Willie of that ilk, who sent out Hedgehunter to win four years ago. The latest young thruster in the family, his nephew Emmet, gets his chance on Saturday on last year's ninth, Chelsea Harbour, trained by another uncle, Tom. The 19-year-old turned professional last year and has 31 victories.

Nacarat, an impressive winner of the Racing Post Chase in February, is likely to swerve a clash with Denman in tomorrow's Totesport Bowl. The progressive eight-year-old will instead face a step up in class and down in trip in the Melling Chase on Friday, when the competition will include last year's winner, Voy Por Ustedes.

"Nothing is set in concrete" said the gelding's trainer, Tom George, "but we think the two and a half-miler would be more to his liking."