Paul Nicholls has achieved much this season, but admits his latest challenge may prove beyond him. He wants Ruby Walsh, whom he shares as first jockey with Willie Mullins, to jump saddle and swap his Grand National ride on 2005 winner Hedgehunter for the Aintree debutant Turko.
It seems that Nicholls now regards Turko, who most recently carried Andy Stewart's colours into third place in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham and earlier filled the same spot in another Grade One contest, the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown, as his number one hope for Saturday's £800,000 showpiece, ahead of the horse who headed the market earlier in the season, Mr Pointment.
"I've been trying my damnedest to prise Ruby off Hedgehunter," he said yesterday. "I really fancy Turko quite strongly but I don't think I'll be successful on the Ruby front, so I don't have a jockey for him at the moment. I've got to persuade Andy, too. But his form in the Ryanair and Lexus looks good and there are a lot of horses above him who wouldn't have run so well in those races, like Mr Pointment; you couldn't see him finishing third in either."
The experienced 12-year-old Hedgehunter, also the runner-up in 2005, is the top weight with 11st 12lb, the same weight he carried into ninth place last year. Turko, half his age, is set to carry 11st 10lb, 1lb less than Mr Pointment, the mount of Sam Thomas.
"I'm keen on Turko," reiterated Nicholls. "He wants to go left-handed and he wants good ground. He's got lots of ticks in the right boxes." And some in the wrong ones, too, statistically at least. He is six; the last of that age to win was Ally Sloper in 1915. He is French-bred; the last of that origin to win was Lutteur in 1909. And he is grey; the last of that hue victorious was Nicolaus Silver in 1961.
Ninety-nine horses remained in the National after yesterday's penultimate declaration stage, with only 40 guaranteed a run. The quartet sweating just below the current cut are last year's fourth, Philson Run, Ardaghey, Dun Doire and last year's favourite, Joe's Edge, with Keith Mercer due to replace the still-injured Graham Lee.
Two yards have a quintet remaining. Nigel Twiston-Davies, successful with Earth Summit 10 years ago and Bindaree in 2002, is likely to field Knowhere, Ollie Magern Fundamentalist – the pick yesterday of stable jockey Paddy Brennan – and Ardaghey, if he gets in. Naunton Brook is the least probable.
David Pipe plans to run all five of his nominees. Timmy Murphy will chose between Comply Or Die and Vodka Bleu, both owned by David Johnson, Tom Scudamore will ride Madison Du Berlais and Johnny Farrelly will be on Joaaci. Milan Deux Mille is the fifth contender.
"I'd have to go for Comply Or Die," Pipe said yesterday, "he's won over four miles and a furlong and he's the third favourite. But Joaaci could have a squeak. He's hard to get right but if he was to put his best foot forward he is a big price."
Bookmakers are predicting that the market leader, Cloudy Lane, trained by Donald McCain, may start the warmest National favourite since Red Rum finished second at 7-2 in 1975. "He's in great nick," reported McCain yesterday, "and has certainly appreciated the bit of sun we've had." The eight-year-old, officially 20lb well-in on ratings, will be ridden by Jason Maguire
Although the marathon is the week's focus, interest in the first two days of the National meeting has been considerably enlivened by the bonus of the presence of two superstars from the Nicholls stable, Kauto Star and Master Minded. Both of Clive Smith's geldings have emerged from Cheltenham in fighting fettle and their trainer's maxim is to strike while the iron remains hot.
Kauto Star, who came off second-best to stablemate Denman in his Gold Cup defence, is set to turn out in the Totesport Bowl on Thursday after schooling with enthusiasm yesterday morning. "He worked really well on Saturday and was really fresh today," said Nicholls. "Ruby's comment afterwards was that he clearly doesn't like getting beat. I thought he ran a cracker at Cheltenham, probably a better race than in last year's Gold Cup."
Master Minded, so devastating in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, will step up to two and a half miles in the Melling Chase on Friday. "He's in the form of his life," added Nicholls, "and when horses are like that they want to be running. I'm not concerned about the trip; we had considered running him in the Ryanair, after all."
Kauto Star's old Aintree nemesis Monet's Garden is entered in both races, with trainer Nicky Richards still weighing up his options. "He's better over the two and a half miles," he said of the grey, "but Master Minded was the most impressive Cheltenham winner for a long time. And you'd think maybe Kauto had the harder race of the two. We want to chose the race we feel is the most winnable."
John Smith's Grand National 4m 4f, Aintree, Saturday
Tote: 5-1 (from 6-1) Cloudy Lane, 9-1 Slim Pickings, 11-1 Comply Or Die, 12-1 Simon, 14-1 Bewleys Berry, Butler's Cabin, 16-1 Chelsea Harbour, Kings John Castle, Snowy Morning, 18-1 Mr Pointment, 20-1 Hedgehunter, Point Barrow, 22-1 McKelvey, 25-1 L'Ami, Mon Mome, Philson Run, 28-1 Dun Doire, Turko, 33-1 D'Argent, Joes Edge, Kelami, Vodka Bleu, 40-1 Idle Talk, Knowhere, Newbay Prop, Ossmoses, 50-1 Backbeat, Baily Breeze, Black Apalachi, Fundamentalist, Irish Raptor, Longshanks, Madison Du Berlais, Naunton Brook, Noir Et Vert, Opera Mundi, You're Special, 66-1 others
Ladbrokes: 5-1 Cloudy Lane, 10-1 Comply Or Die, Slim Pickings, 12-1 Simon, 14-1 Bewley's Berry, Butler's Cabin, Chelsea Harbour, 16-1 McKelvey, Mr Pointment, 20-1 King Johns Castle, Philson Run, Snowy Morning, 25-1 D'Argent, Dun Doire, Hedgehunter, Mon Mome, Point Barrow, 33-1 Joes Edge, Kelami, L'Ami, Preacher Boy, Turko, Vodka Bleu, 40-1 others.
Nap: The Wooden Spoon (Wetherby 3.50)
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