It is not just traditionalists of the cheerfully obstinate ilk of the late Ginger McCain who have been aggrieved about various modifications to the fences at Aintree, the latest of which are introduced on Saturday. There are also many horses who adore the place just the way it was, none more so than Always Waining, who in April became the first since 1958 to win consecutive runnings of the Topham Chase.
He had only just missed the cut for the John Smith's Grand National itself, and the big one will be his priority this time round. As one of the few trainers not averse to a higher handicap rating, Peter Bowen hopes the horse will again shine when restored to the big fences this weekend.
Always Waining is entered for both the Becher Chase and the Grand Sefton, likewise sponsored by Betfred, but half as valuable and run over a shorter distance. "It all depends on the ground," Bowen said yesterday. "If it's no worse than good to soft he'll go for the Becher. It's amazing the way he lights up round there, he just seems to love it. To get him spot-on for this meeting has been the plan all along, and I was quite pleased by his last run over hurdles – he was running on quite nicely at the end, which he hadn't been doing. I think we have him in very, very good form."
Always Waining is by no means the first to respond to the unique Aintree challenge for the man who has inspired an extraordinary flowering among Welsh jumps trainers. McKelvey finished second in the 2007 National, while Dunbrody Millar won the Topham the same year. "I just love the place myself – that's probably got quite a lot to do with it," Bowen said. "We do keep horses for Aintree, more so than for Cheltenham. But I think our horses are more Aintree types anyway. Over those fences the one thing you have to be able to do is jump."
As such, he fears that each successive tweak will ultimately dilute the National beyond recognition. "If they're not careful, it'll end up like a normal handicap, and they'll lose what makes it so special," he said. "No animal on earth gets better treated than a racehorse. But they seem to be listening to people who don't understand that – people who will never stop wanting more, who won't be happy, until they've stopped racing altogether."
The National is a unique test and Bowen admits that Always Waining would start with a question mark over his stamina. "But who can honestly know that?" he asked. "It's the only place where they jump those fences, and the only race where they run four and a half miles." And, as much as any horse in the land, at least they know where they stand with the fences.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Kells Belle (2.0 Leicester) Career best on return at Cheltenham, staying on strongly from the rear after meeting traffic, and entitled to improve again past this 5lb higher mark.
Water Garden (1.10 Wincanton) Made up plenty of ground for second when tried in cheekpieces at Exeter the other day, the pair clear. Due to go up 9lb for that, so well ahead of the game if repeating that form.
One to watch
Guess Again (Ferdy Murphy) made a fine start over hurdles for his new stable when second at Carlisle on Sunday, giving the winner a start but closing smoothly when hitting the last.
Where the money's going
Sona Sasta is 10-1 from 14-1 with the sponsors for the Betfred Becher Chase at Aintree on Saturday.