For punters, at any rate, the version at Fairyhouse yesterday proved a fairly alarming rehearsal for the real thing at Aintree on Saturday. Those who have backed Katie Walsh to make history on Seabass will admittedly have been encouraged to see her mount in the Ladbrokes Irish National, Panther Claw, dominating this big field for such a long way. In the end, however, the pair faded out of the money behind a mystifying 50-1 winner, Liberty Counsel, ridden by a young claiming rider and trained by a woman who has not run a dozen horses all season.
As she watched Ben Dalton driving Liberty Counsel towards the final fence, Dot Love must have felt condemned to the usual fate of the plucky underdog. Away You Go, from the omnipotent yard of Willie Mullins, was closing smoothly under Paul Townend and seemed guaranteed to assert on the run-in. But as Liberty Counsel kept responding, Away You Go found less than seemed likely off the bridle. At the post the mare had staved off her challenger by half a length, and Love had trained an Irish National winner – and Mullins, remarkably, still had not.
Settled in midfield by Dalton, Liberty Counsel emerged to challenge on the turn for home after a series of good jumps. "And she winged the last," Dalton said. "I knew she'd stay right to the line, and she kept finding more. She was disappointing at Cheltenham [in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Chase], I suppose, but the ground was very dead there and this going was a real help."
The Irish National has a history of volunteering future Aintree candidates, and one to keep in mind is the third home, Home Farm. He saw things out very well, a remarkable performance for a six-year-old making just his eighth start under Rules, and could hardly be in better hands than those of Arthur Moore.
Not that there is any point trying to identify a 2015 winner when it is hard enough to pick one from 49 acceptors for the John Smith's Grand National this Saturday. Following several defections, those who have paid their forfeits have a much better chance than usual of sneaking inside the safety limit of 40. Though the forecast remains cold, it is expected to remain dry on Merseyside and watering began yesterday to maintain a going report of good to soft, good in places.
At Fairyhouse, Michael O'Leary appeared to spare himself a commitment to offer €200,000 (£169,000) for the winner of the Racing Post Champion Point-to-Point Bumper – as Akorakor already runs in his own Gigginstown Stud silks. But he contrived a very handsome solution by pledging the same sum to a fund for J T McNamara, paralysed since a fall at Cheltenham last month.
CHRIS MCGRATH'S NAP: Royal Bajan (3.50 Southwell)
Inconsistent overall but has been beaten by just one rival in two visits to this track, which is tailor-made both for his American genes and dominating style.
NEXT BEST: Naalatt (3.20 Southwell)
Set a straightforward task on debut for her new stable around here but looked very much at home on the surface and has a fair mark for her handicap debut.
ONE TO WATCH: A J Cook (David Barron) finished last in both juvenile starts but showed promise in qualifying for what should prove a modest mark at Wolverhampton last week.
WHERE THE MONEY'S GOING: Ballabriggs , the 2011 winner, is 20-1 from 25-1 with Coral for the John Smith's Grand National on Saturday.
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