Slim Pickings has the pedigree to darken Cloudy Lane bid for glory

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The Independent Online

Will there be a new name to inscribe carefully on the Grand National roll of honour after the 161st running over the fearsome fences this afternoon, or will it be a simple cut-and-paste job of one of the most familiar Aintree names of all: D McCain?

For Red Rum and Ginger, read Cloudy Lane and Donald, the son who transformed the last years of his father's training career so effectively that Amberleigh House was able to add a 2004 National victory to Rummy's indelible trio of wins in the 1970s.

The betting says that he will, for Cloudy Lane is the shortest-priced favourite since, well Red Rum of course, in 1975. Even the racing authorities say it must be so, as the official handicapper would burden Cloudy Lane with another 20lb if given a second chance at framing the weights after the bay gelding's latest, much improved, performance.

It is compelling evidence that makes establishing the winner seem simple; if only. When the tapes fly up, or rather if the tapes fly up, for even that is no certainty on past form, the balance tilts from what history cosily suggests should happen to the gut-gnawing unpredictability and mayhem that experience dictates is possible.

The stampede towards the Melling (one day sure to be renamed Lemming) Road sets the tone, the freefall over Becher's Brook and Valentine's, the chaos of the Canal Turn and then the Chair.

The names are oh so familiar, like stopping-off points on long ago family holidays to the sea, and the protagonists should be too, with 13 runners from last year's race trying their luck again and Hedgehunter, the winner in 2005, returning for the fifth time.

And when it comes to recognition it is not just the McCains that have Aintree lore on their side. Mercy Rimell, whose husband, Fred, trained four National winners, culminating in Rag Trade's 1976 defeat of Red Rum, owns a leading contender in Simon, while Tom Taaffe, trainer of Slim Pickings, has an even more apposite connection. His grandfather, also Tom, saddled Mr What for victory precisely 50 years ago, while his father, Pat, rode Quare Times and Gay Trip –what an interestingly named double that was – to success in 1955 and 1970.

There is more than just coincidence to suggest that SLIM PICKINGS (4.15) can add another page to the family's scrapbook that includes chapters on Arkle, Captain Christy and Kicking King. Third last year, when a mistake at the final fence probably cost him victory, he has had his whole year geared towards today and has thus been subjected to rare and far from overtaxing visits to the racecourse.

Slim Pickings was in Taaffe's care for only a few months before last year's attempt and another year under the wing of this excellent, underrated, trainer can only have had a beneficial effect that will surely counteract the extra weight the handicapper has imposed on him.

Even better is the riding record, or rather stickability record, of his jockey, Barry Geraghty, over the Aintree fences. In eight attempts at the race he has failed to complete only twice and has collected a victory and placing on Monty's Pass.

Look then at Tony McCoy's record and the comparison is embarrassing. The 12-times champion is making his 13th attempt on the race and the record reads: rode home four times; walked back eight times. Admittedly, it took Frankie Dettori 15 tries before winning the Derby last year, but McCoy is not about to end his anguish on Butler's Cabin, his pick from the JP McManus quartet. "It wasn't a tough choice to ride him," McCoy said yesterday, "but I've picked the wrong one a few times before.

"He's won an Irish National and the four-miler at Cheltenham, so you'd have to think that there's not much of a question mark from a staying point of view. I just thought this one has more potential of winning a National than JP's other entries."

At the other end of the weighing room pecking order is 19-year-old Aidan Coleman, who has his first ride in the race on Mon Mome. It comes with the benediction of his shrewd trainer, Venetia Williams, who rode in the race and was knocked out in a fall at Becher's. "I thought long and hard about who was going to ride Mon Mome. Aidan's a very, very talented rider and I was tossing up between natural talent and experience. I decided Aidan's natural talent far outweighs experience."

Mon Mome may well be in contention as those still standing return across the Melling Road for the final time, along with two thorough stayers from the West Country: Comply Or Die, representing the massive David Pipe production line, and Philson Run, from the small, but excellent Nick Williams yard. The latter was an honourable fourth to Silver Birch last year, and may well plod on into a place again, while the Tony Martin-trained Dun Doire is another to be feared.

Simon could well be there too if, unlike last year, he remembers to take off at Valentine's on the second circuit. Although he is on the small side for the big fences, few have more experience of the course's demands than his owner, Mrs Rimell, who believes lack of stature can be an advantage when it comes to shortening a stride going into a fence and thus measuring the jump more accurately.

As for Cloudy Lane, those who do not want to back a comparatively short-priced favourite in such a demanding contest will have to hope that the speculative theory that he may not last the trip will be proved correct.

Either way, when it comes to preparing the trophy the engraver may not have to look too far to check the spelling, whether it is McCain, Rimell or Taaffe.

Quips from the course

*DONALD McCAIN: "Cloudy Lane's preparation couldn't have gone better and I suppose some way down the line the wheels are going to fall off, but all we need is a little bit of luck. You can't get too carried away about it because it's Aintree and we all know what can happen, so it's fingers crossed.'

*WILLIE MULLINS: 'I imagine Ruby Walsh is riding Hedgehunter because he has won on him before and unless he gets brought down he is as good a ride as you are going to get in a National. I'm hoping the ground keeps drying out for him, while Snowy Morning doesn't need it soft either'

Fancy a flutter? The experts' predictions

*JOHN COBB: 1. Slim Pickings 2. Simon 3. Philson Run 4. Cloudy Lane

*HYPERION: 1. Joaaci 2. Turko 3. Mon Mome 4. Fundamentalist

*SUE MONTGOMERY: 1. Bewleys Berry 2. Simon 3. Hedgehunter 4. Idle Talk

*FORM GUIDE: 1. Bewleys Berry 2. Simon 3. Slim Pickings 4. Hedgehunter

More on the Grand National:

Click here to view the Grand National course at Aintree

Click here to view the Grand National runners and riders

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