Down in East Cork, the tiny village of Conna has a Grand National connection that may be unique for a place of its size. Amberleigh House, the Aintree hero six years ago, was foaled there; Bindaree, the winner in 2002, spent two of the first three years of his life there with local trainer and dealer Jimmy Mangan; and Monty's Pass emerged from Mangan's small family-run stable to capture steeplechasing's most famous prize in 2003.
Now the veteran horseman has his sights on the great race again with a two-pronged attack. The irony is that the much more fancied of the pair from Curraheen, 25-1 chance Whinstone Boy, may miss the cut, whereas his stablemate Conna Castle, more or less any price you like, is guaranteed a run.
Whinstone Boy, allotted 10st 4lbs for the marathon and likely to get his favoured soft-ground conditions, is currently number 54 on the list for a contest with a safety limit of 40. It will be a close-run affair; he would have made it to seven of the last ten runnings, but only two of the last five.
"It's going to be tight," admitted Mangan yesterday. "The key to him is cut in the ground, he's a mudlark and the softer the better. He has no real speed for a relentless gallop on fast ground. If the going came up too fast, then he wouldn't run, but I can't see that happening in this weather. He's loving all this rain at the moment and if he gets in he'll have a perfect racing weight."
The nine-year-old's three owners Adam Armstrong, Muir Higginson and Noel Murphy were all part of the syndicate that gave the bookies such a battering with Monty's Pass. Their latest star has already landed a gamble of his own by winning the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park in January, his second win over fences from only five runs. He made it three from six at Clonmel in February, but Mangan is not worried about taking such a relative novice to the greatest test of all. "The fences at Gowran take some jumping, and he didn't touch a twig," he said.
Whinstone Boy, bred near Belfast by his owners, seems to be improving; he was one of the lightweights at Gowran, with 9st 11lbs on his back, yet shouldered 11st 12lbs two weeks later. If he lines up on Saturday week, he will be ridden by his regular pilot, 21-year-old Sean Flanagan. "He's never been to Aintree," said Mangan, "but he gets on well with the horse and I don't want to break up a good combination."
Although Whinstone Boy is perceived as the one with the better credentials, Mangan is delighted that Conna Castle, due to carry 10st 9lbs, will get his chance at the near £1m John Smiths-sponsored purse. The 11-year-old has not won for more than two years, but that victory was a notable one; he beat current two-mile ace Big Zeb in a Grade One at Fairyhouse. On his latest start he was booked for a good second place at Thurles, only to unseat his trainer's son Pat at the last fence.
"It was very heavy that day," said Mangan, "and I thought it was a great run as he prefers better ground, and he was just unlucky. We gave the National a miss with him last year but we think he deserves to have a crack at it this time."
Mangan is a widely respected horseman, from a line of the same; he won his Thyestes, sporting his trademark bobble hat in his family colours, 29 years after he led up victorious Junes Friend, trained by his late father Paddy. And if Jimmy farms the National, no one will be complaining.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Just Rob (4.30 Ludlow)
Lightly raced over hurdles and highly tried last season. Posted a decent effort last month in a better race than this. Has shown he acts on soft ground.
Kennel Hill (3.30 Ludlow)
Backing this quirky character, especially at short odds, comes with a wealth warning, but is much the most talented horse here and may not come under too much pressure.
*One To Watch
After racing over an inadequate distance as a two-year-old, Mnarani (J S Moore) has looked more the part having stepped up on the all-weather this spring and 67 looks a feasible mark for the start of his turf campaign.
*Where The Money's Going
A gamble is rolling on Alpha Ridge in Monday's Powers Irish Grand National, cut over the past 48 hours from 20-1 to 9-1 by Victor Chandler.
*Chris McGrath's Nap
Rio Mist (3.10 Folkestone).