Barely has the ink dried on the Cheltenham Festival formbook than plans are being mooted for the next major pitstop on the domestic spring circuit. And for all the prestige of the top events at Prestbury Park, it is the Grand National, with a purse just a whisker short of £1m, that provides the richest single-race pickings of the season.
Aintree opens the gates for its showcase meeting three weeks today, and yesterday Willie Mullins, trainer of the National market leader Prince De Beauchene, gave a broad hint that the nine-year-old would be the mount of Ruby Walsh, the most successful Grand National jockey currently riding.
Mullins has a team of six among the 59 remaining in the race after this week's scratchings stage, all of whom will make the 40-horse cut. Prince De Beauchene, who announced his credentials last month with a easy victory in Ireland's top National trial, has back-up from another in the Graham Wylie colours, On His Own, plus Quel Esprit, Apt Approach, The Midnight Club and Quiscover Fontaine.
"We'll see closer to the time what will go to Aintree," said the Co Carlow-based trainer, who has one National, with Hedgehunter in 2005, on his CV, "but I'll be happy just to get Graham Wylie's two horses there. They'd be a very nice team on their own."
Walsh has won two Nationals, on his first ride in the race, Papillon, trained by his father Ted, in 2000 and on Hedgehunter for his current Irish boss. In addition, he has finished in the first four four times (on Papillon, Kingsmark, Hedgehunter and My Will), and failed to complete only once in his 10 rides. "I haven't asked him yet what he'd like to ride," added Mullins, "but I should imagine that he'd always think it's nice to ride a favourite."
Prince De Beauchene is generally a 9-1 shot in the lists for the John Smith's-sponsored £975,000 marathon, ahead of the home side's Junior, the Gold Cup hero Synchronised, last year's winner Ballabriggs and Burton Port. On His Own, also a comfortable winner of an Irish trial last time out, is around a 20-1 shot.
Quel Esprit, who was ruled out of the Gold Cup after rider Paul Townend felt him lame during a leg-stretch on the morning of the race and remained at a veterinary practice in England, is due back at Closutton today. "He seems fine now," said Mullins, "but we'll see what he's like once he gets home before making any plans."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Golden Firebird (2.10 Chepstow) Bumper winner. Unseated rider at the first on hurdling bow but is well-regarded in her powerful stable.
Greyfriarschorista (3.40 Wolverhampton) Has run respectably in far better company so could revel in the drop in class.
One to watch
Allee Garde (Willie Mullins) fell at halfway in Festival's NH Chase but looks a fair staying prospect and will like the spring ground.
Where the money's going
Cai Shen was backed from 7-1 to 4s at Paddy Power for the Winter Derby, the AW season's top contest at Lingfield on Saturday.