"It's impossible to say who will head the market this year," Mike Dillon, the Ladbrokes spokesman, said yesterday. "For once the race will be shaped not by professionals' money but by bets going on from the general public. It could be that the favourite will start at 10-1."
The annual conundrum of finding the first survivor in this gruelling assignment is made no easier by the fact that most of the form horses have shown their most persuasive displays on softish ground. Despite spluttering showers on Merseyside yesterday the going is expected to be good.
Lord Gyllene, at least, has won on terrain of that description. The nine- year-old has been favourite for much of the build-up largely due to his victory in the Midlands National Trial in February.
If you ignore the gelding's successes in his native New Zealand, Uttoxeter is the only place he has won. The men behind Lord Gyllene are particularly worried about the effect these frightening obstacles will have on their horse. "I hope he goes at it quietly," Steve Brookshaw, his trainer, said. "I would be happy if he got close to one early on and learned something. But he's a brainy horse, so I'm hopeful he'll get round." He may do, but the hats are likely to have stopped rolling on the ground by the time he crosses the line.
Wylde Hide, too, was expected to complete 12 months ago until the Canal Turn removed those thoughts. The Irish horse has been backed quite monstrously, with one single betting-shop punter placing wagers that have cost him the thick end of pounds 7,000 in tax. He could have placed the bets on course and had a good day out (helicopter, private box, fine champagnes, private hospital care) on the tax saved.
Wylde Hide would be a first Irish winner since L'Escargot in 1975, and by neat connection that horse was trained by Dan Moore, father of today's trainer, Arthur. However, Wylde Hide was also well supported last year and it may be that once again he will get left behind when the accelerators go down and make a damaging error.
Another Irish-based beast with a chance is Antonin, who ran right away from a capable field at Punchestown last time. He had a scouting mission last year when survival was the sole priority, finishing eighth. A similar position appears likely on ground he will not appreciate.
Two of the classiest horses who can also ally good form to their capabilities are Go Ballistic and Avro Anson. There are jumping queries about the pair, but, if they do not shrivel under the challenge, a place in the frame beckons. Nahthen Lad also has a bit of calibre about him and has an added impetus in that he will be disappointing Jenny Pitman if he does not perform close to peak capacity.
Lo Stregone is another who has been a short price for some months now, though a caveat is that he ran as if he had a corkscrew tail and lived in a sty last time out behind Suny Bay.
That winner is trained by Charlie Brooks, the Eton- educated Swampy who recently threatened to climb up a tree to stall the proposed Newbury by-pass. There is leg trouble in the Brooks camp, but that belongs to the trainer himself, who is minus the cruciate ligaments in one knee. Suny Bay's problem is that he is prone to breaking blood vessels, though it is believed he has been helped over this debilitation by being turned out in the fresh air of a paddock for much of each day.
Suny Bay's Haydock victory means he is in line for a record pounds 280,000 pick-up for connections (which includes a bonus) should he prevail. The eight-year-old is another who is said to prefer sloppy going, though it must be considered that his best performance came last time out on good ground.
Of the many facts that are resurrected around Grand National time, one of the most grating seems to be that Nicolaus Silver was the last grey to triumph in 1961. It now appears that fact is finally to be expunged from the record book by SUNY BAY (nap 3.45).
However, most important of all to consider is the Latin inscription that is carried on the side of the Uplands horsebox - "dum spiro spero" - Brooks's prep school motto, which translates to "while I breathe I hope". At the end of this afternoon, the 30th anniversary of the celebrated melee of the Foinavon Grand National, the greatest wish will be that all 39 combatants are still hoping.