However conscientiously they strive to improve the odds in terms of safety at Aintree – a greater imperative than ever, after trauma and tragedy in each of the past two years – the one thing they will never provide is a level playing field. Even so, some felt that the dice had been unfairly loaded in favour of one horse in particular when the weights for the John Smith's Grand National were published.
On the basis that it makes unique demands of horses, the National is the one race in which Phil Smith, the senior handicapper, feels at liberty to abandon official ratings and make a discretionary assessment of what each runner should be asked to do. And he does so with a fairly candid agenda, plainly intent that top-class steeplechasers should lend due distinction to a prize worth so much more than the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself. Sure enough, top weight of 11st 10lb for Tidal Bay disguises an extraordinarily amiable piece of handicapping.
Officially rated 171, and looking better than ever in the Lexus Chase last time, the evergreen Tidal Bay has been indulged with a mark of 162. That is 4lb lower than when runner-up to the Gold Cup favourite, Bobs Worth, in the Hennessy at Newbury back in November. His trainer, Paul Nicholls, required no second invitation and immediately suggested that Tidal Bay could well sit out Cheltenham next month to be kept fresh for what had become an irresistible priority.
Nicholls has already scratched Tidal Bay from the Gold Cup and now sounds disposed to sit out the Ladbrokes World Hurdle as well. The horse has only just resumed training after a hold-up, and Nicholls would not want to jeopardise a golden opportunity at Aintree by rushing him to the Festival first. "If he can just get into a rhythm and come into the race late, he'd definitely have a big chance in the National," he said.
Others, no less predictably, were bemused by this lavish gesture to the best horse in the race. Ted Walsh certainly expected Seabass to receive more than 8lb from Tidal Bay, even if his own horse did finish third in the race last year. "I don't know how Seabass can get over 11st this year if Tidal Bay is rated 171 and my horse is rated 154," he said. "Whatever Phil Smith does, he does – it is immaterial to me and I can't change it. You don't have to be a great mathematician to subtract 54 from 71."
Smith is not afraid to depart from convention to arrange things in a manner that strikes him as fairest. Only last month he supervised the downgrading of several Flat champions of years past, having concluded that the statistical base had changed. "If Tidal Bay could replicate his Lexus or Hennessy run, he would obviously have a very good chance off 162," he said. "The problem is that this is a completely different race, over four and a half miles and 30 fences. If I left him on 171, he would probably have to run to 180 to win. As a 12-year-old, I don't think anyone thinks he could do that."
Extending a benign compression of the top of the handicap to another halfdozen entries, Smith is duly gratified that elite performers are increasingly aimed at the National. He noted that the top three had won 10 Grade One prizes between them, albeit Albertas Run (11st 8lb) and Imperial Commander (11st 6lb) are also entering the veteran stage.
One key factor is whether Ruby Walsh might now be tempted to ride Tidal Bay, whose quirks he knows so well, rather than Prince De Beauchene or On His Own, also owned by Graham Wylie but trained in Ireland by Willie Mullins. It was startling to hear Mullins hail both these as "better" than Hedgehunter, Walsh's 2005 winning mount who was good enough to finish second in the Gold Cup. "They're huge, beautiful horses that any jockey would love to ride in the race," he said. "You could just go out there and feel so confident."
Walsh has a superb record over the big fences and, all things being equal, Betfred's offer of 12-1 against him winning a third time will surely prove much bigger than the eventual SP of his chosen mount on 6 April. But then it is not as if all things are ever going to be equal at Aintree.
Early favourites: Odds and weights
14-1 On His Own (W Mullins) 10st 10lb
14-1 Prince De Beauchene (Mullins) 11st 3lb
14-1 Seabass (T Walsh) 11st 2lb
16-1 Tidal Bay (P Nicholls) 11st 10lb
20-1 Beshabar (T Vaughan) 10st 5lb
20-1 Colbert Station (Walsh) 10st 11lb
20-1 Join Together (Nicholls) 10st 12lb
20-1 Roi Du Mee (G Elliott) 11st 1lb
20-1 Sunnyhillboy (J J O'Neill) 11st
20-1 Teaforthree (R Curtis) 10st 13lb
25-1 Cappa Bleu (E Williams) 10st 7lb
25-1 Harry The Viking (Nicholls) 10st 2lb
25-1 Katenko (V Williams) 11st 4lb
25-1 Magnanimity (D Highs) 10st 3lb
25-1 The Package (D Pipe) 10st 8lb
33-1 or higher the rest
Chris McGrath's Nap
Dubawi Island (3.50 Southwell) Excelled in both previous starts here, and in good heart elsewhere since.
Admiralty (4.20 Southwell) Drops to a trip ideally tailored to the speed he showed on last visit here.
One to watch
Haywain (Kevin Ryan) ran a career-best race at Wolverhampton last week.
Where the money's going
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