National hopes not so grand

None of the leading fancies for the Grand National in action yesterday will go to Aintree on the back of a win, but then of the last-dozen winners of the marathon only three did, so the statistic is not one that will worry any trainer with eyes on next month's great prize. Indeed, Donald McCain seemed thrilled after Ballabriggs was turned over at 8-13 favourite in his warm-up at Kelso.

"Delighted," he said after Trevor Hemmings' 10-year-old came in a length and three quarters behind Skippers Brig on his first run over fences this season. "Today was a prep; the National is the one we're aiming to win. He travelled well, jumped well and had a nice blow afterwards. And so long as he's OK in the morning, job done."

What might be a concern is the way that Ballabriggs, in front for most of the final circuit under Jason Maguire, was caught and passed by Skippers Brig on a run-in that is normally one of the longest in the country and yesterday, with the last fence omitted, matched even Aintree's famous haul to the line. McCain,though, dismissed such thoughts. "The way the race was run would not have suited," he said. "In a small field he was in front a long way from home, a target. It turned into a little bit of a sprint between the two, and the one thing ours is not is a sprinter."

Ballabriggs was eased to around 14-1, leaving The Midnight Club, from Willie Mullins' stable, as the clear National favourite at 12-1. Skippers Brig was among the outsiders at the start of the day and, although still a long-shot, is now generally 33-1. "He'd be one of the classier ones at the bottom of the handicap," said his trainer, Nicky Richards, of the 11-year-old, "and we'll pray for a wet National."

At Newbury the best-placed ofthe National contenders in the two-and-a-half mile chase won by Fine Parchment proved to be last year's Aintree fourth, Big Fella Thanks. The Ferdy Murphy-trained nine-year-old again came in fourth, and is jostling for second place in the market at 14-1. Rider Graham Lee was another satis-fied with the day's work in defeat: "That run will leave him exactly where you'd want him to be at this stage," he said.

Niche Market, another of those near the head of the betting, finished eighth on his first outing since the Hennessy Gold Cup in November. "You couldn't be too disappointed in him," said his rider, Ruby Walsh. "He wants further. He couldn't go the pace down the back and only his jumping kept him in a respectful position, but he galloped all the way up the straight."

Walsh is still looking for a first winner since his comeback from injury on Friday. The best he could do yesterday was a pair of thirds; he will continue his rehabilitation this afternoon at Naas, riding the likely favourite Quadrillon for Mullins in the Leinster National.

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