Tricky choice for National

Paul Nicholls-trained favourite given 11st 4lb handicap for April race

The life and work of Dick Francis are too fresh in the mind to warrant assumptions about the likely outcome of any steeplechase, never mind the one to which his surreal misfortune on Devon Loch made such a defining contribution. Certainly anyone already claiming to know the winner of the 2010 John Smith's Grand National has forgotten what happened last year.

The tape was played back yesterday to guests gathered in London for the publication of the weights, and the official handicapper, Phil Smith, presumably had a renewed sense of a job well done when over a dozen horses remained clustered on the bridle approaching the second last. Only the fact that one of them, the 100-1 shot Mon Mome, then surged clear on the run-in prompted a modest revision of his score to "seven out of 10".

Not that everyone present was impressed. Ginger McCain, the outstanding nominee for induction into a new Aintree hall of fame, was aghast. "I'm bloody disgusted," Red Rum's trainer declared cheerfully. "There were far too many horses still with chances. They should put the top weight back up to 12 stone, make the fences stiffer, and put one or two drops back in. That would sort that lot out. I'm old and I'm grumpy, but they don't make it easier to climb Everest by taking 10,000 feet off the top."

McCain is always guaranteed an indulgent audience here, but Sir Peter O'Sullevan soon restored perspective. "Very few men can talk more utter rubbish more engagingly than Ginger," he said affectionately. As true to instinct as McCain, O'Sullevan proved rather more concerned by the challenge of finding the winner on 10 April. And at this stage he concurred with the bookmakers, who make Tricky Trickster as short as 8-1 favourite after his unexpected intrusion on what was supposed to be a lap of honour for his mighty stablemate, Denman, at Newbury on Saturday.

When Denman fell three out, Niche Market was already clear but Ruby Walsh then engaged top gear on Tricky Trickster and collared him on the line. Bob Buckler, Niche Market's trainer, suspects that he was idling in front, but Tricky Trickster, receiving 3lb at Newbury, has had his advantage annulled by Smith who has rated both horses at 11st 4lb.

His skilled supervision of a small stable has never taken Buckler to the National, but nor have the unrivalled resources of Paul Nicholls ever made him any more at home in the race. The champion trainer has saddled 44 runners without success, but remains adamant that Tricky Trickster and Big Fella Thanks – sixth as a novice last year and, like the favourite, trained specifically for Aintree this time round – both have "an outstanding chance".

Venetia Williams, who is likely to step up Mon Mome's preparations at Haydock on Saturday, had few complaints about Smith squeezing his rating up 2lb.

"Is there an Aintree factor?" Smith asked himself. "Some people don't think so, but seven of the last nine winners had previous experience over the course. It's not a massive statistical sample, but I think it's quite convincing."

On that basis, Dessie Hughes has two highly eligible candidates in Black Apalachi and Vic Venturi, both winners of the Becher Chase and both set for the Bobbjo Chase at Fairyhouse on Saturday. Black Apalachi was still on the bridle when discarding his jockey at Becher's second time last year. "When you've been in racing as long as I have, you can't help but feel you've missed your chance when something like that happens," Hughes said.

Meanwhile, the emphasis today returns to Cheltenham where Rite Of Passage – useful on the level and just dazzling on his debut over timber at Leopardstown last month – steps up to two-and-a-half miles in a conditions hurdle at Punchestown.

Five jockeys, including Jason Maguire, were banned for 12 days after taking the wrong course in a race at Newcastle yesterday. But it could prove to have been a still worse day for Timmy Murphy, taken to hospital for X-rays on a shoulder injury after a steeplechase fall.

Grand National: Handicaps

12-1 Tricky Trickster, 11st 4lb

16-1 Niche Market, 11st 4lb

20-1 Backstage, 11st 0lb

20-1 Big Fella Thanks, 10st 12lb

20-1 Black Apalachi, 11st 6lb

20-1 Mon Mome, 11st 7lb

20-1 War Of Attrition, 11st 1lb

25-1 Comply Or Die, 11st 5lb

25-1 Notre Pere, 11st 10lb

25-1 State Of Play, 10st 11lb

25-1 Vic Venturi, 11st 6lb

28-1 Dream Alliance, 11st 3lb

33-1 or more others

Odds: Totesport

Turf account: Chris McGrath

Nap

Celtic Sovereign (7.10 Kempton) Won a course and distance maiden in striking fashion on his belated debut, and then proved his first handicap rating to be very fair when forcing a flourishing rival clear of the pack next time.

Next best

Absa Lutte (6.10 Kempton) Form of her life this winter and decisively settled a similar race over course and distance last time, clearly value for more than this 4lbs higher mark.

One to watch

Sir Geoffrey (J.A. Glover) has tumbled down the handicap and showed renewed zest on his return from a break at Kempton the other day, promising to last longer next time.

Where the money's going

State Of Play, fifth last year, is 25-1 from 33-1 for the John Smith's Grand National with William Hill after his trainer Evan Williams reacted positively to his place in the handicap.

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