The focus at Aintree on Saturday will be as much on have-nots as haves. The Grand National still remains tantalisingly out of reach for some of the sport's finest, notably Tony McCoy. The Ulsterman has 13 jockeys' titles to his name and 13 fruitless rides in racing's most charismatic contest. He will claim another championship when the season ends next month, but whether it is 14th time lucky over the fearsome fences remains to be seen.
Many a top-class rider retires without having won – such as Peter Scudamore and John Francome – but that would not be acceptable to McCoy. "I'm lucky enough to have won most big races, but if I don't win the Grand National it would be a little bit of a failure," is his uncompromising view.
Paul Nicholls, champion trainer for the past three years, is every bit as professionally obsessive and meticulous as McCoy, but not about this particular race. "It's never been top of my priorities," he said. "It's a nice prize to win and we'd all like to win it. But my main aims have been championship races, the Gold Cups and the King Georges."
Therein lies a difference. For a jump jockey, the National – four-and-a-half miles, 30 fences – is perhaps the ultimate physical experience, a hands-on test of skill, daring, nerve, courage. For a trainer, it's a nice prize – a very nice prize, with a purse this year of £900,000 – but still a Grade Three handicap that can be won by a horse of ordinary ability. It represents the fun and fortune of the FA Cup, rather than the consistency and class of the Premier League.
Nicholls, 46, has sent 40 horses to the fray, the first being sixth-placed Just So in 1992, the latest a trio last year, of whom Cornish Sett, 12th, did best. He came closest with Royal Auclair, who beat all bar Hedgehunter four years ago, but rates Ad Hoc, who was going conspicuously well in 2002 when brought down by a faller four from home, his only genuine hard-luck story.
This week four will make the journey from the Somerset village of Ditcheat to Liverpool: My Will, Big Fella Thanks, Eurotrek and Cornish Sett. The first-named, one of the market leaders, is likely to be the choice of Ruby Walsh, unless really soft ground persuades the rider to switch to the mudlark Southern Vic, trained by his father, Ted, in Ireland.
"I've never been one for setting horses out for the National," said Nicholls. "There are too many variables to contend with, like the ground on the day and luck in running. You can plan all year and get bundled out at the first. Yes, we have likely types for the race, but what we like to do is pick up what prizes we can with them on the way and if we get them to the start, fine."
The master of Manor Farm has, however, made an exception with My Will. The French-bred nine-year-old, who carries the colours of Nicholls' long-time patron and friend Andy Stewart, was a high-class novice four years ago, and went on to prove himself on the fringe of the very best over the next two seasons before damaging a leg when third, under top-weight, in the 2007 Betfred Gold Cup. After 19 months off, he produced a hugely encouraging performance when fifth in the Hennessy Gold Cup in November, and his rehabilitation was completed with the same position behind his stablemates Kauto Star and Denman in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham.
"This has been his target since he went wrong at Sandown," said Nicholls. "Everything has gone to plan since and his run at Cheltenham was the best of his career. I've read he's not big enough for Aintree, which is nonsense. He's a good 16.2 hands, a big, strong, lovely black horse. He's well in at the weights, is in great form and has a touch of class."
My Will comes with the requisite human-interest story, albeit a poignant one. Stewart's son Paul, in a wheelchair after breaking his back in a snowboarding accident, will need more reserves of fortitude than any Grand National winner on his road to recovery. But the young man has already drawn inspiration from his family's recent Cheltenham winner, Big Buck's. And where there's a will, there's a way.
My Grand National 1-2-3
1. My Will
2. Snowy Morning
3. Southern Vic
Best long-shot: Chelsea Harbour.
Four to watch
BUTLER'S CABIN: The nine-year-old, going well when falling at the second Becher's last year, is likely to bear the onus of trying to break Tony McCoy's National duck, plus that of owner JP McManus and trainer Jonjo O'Neill. McCoy's best placing has been third; O'Neill never completed the course as a rider.
War Of Attrition: Punters who have plunged on the 10-year-old, owned by Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary, will hope he flies high. Cheltenham Gold Cup winners are a rarity in the race; the last was fifth-placed Master Oats 12 years ago.
Snowy Morning: Horses who take to the Aintree challenge often run well there again, and last year's third should give his young rider, Paul Townend, a thrilling National debut. The nine-year-old is physically much stronger this year and his trainer, Willie Mullins, successful with Hedgehunter, knows what it takes.
Rambling Minster: One of the older members of the field but in the form of his life, on a hat-trick after victories at Cheltenham and Haydock. The clever-jumping 11-year-old has won a National – the Scottish Borders version.
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