The Grand National: Summit in the air at Aintree

Sue Montgomery explains how a gruelling journey can reward faith for friends of the Earth
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ONE of the great achievements in the world of racing - as any trainer will vouch - is not so much to saddle a winner, as to get the beast to the start in the first place. And the presence of Earth Summit in this year's Grand National on Saturday will be the culmination of a well-laid long-term plan that went heartbreakingly wrong first time round.

The 10-year-old carries the colours of one of the main men at Aintree, the publicity officer Nigel Payne. In 1996, with the Scottish National already under his girth, he was an 11th-hour withdrawal with a leg injury that kept him off the track for more than a year. But the patience and expertise of his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, has meant that, two years on, Payne gets another chance at his Aintree dream.

The National has been Earth Summit's target since he was bought for just 5,800gns as an unbroken three-year-old. He added the Welsh version to his portfolio in December and if he is back to his best he has all the credentials for the gruelling Aintree test. He jumps, he stays, he is in the handicap proper, his stable is in flying form and his jockey Carl Llewellyn knows his way round, having won on Party Politics six years ago and finished third on Earth Summit's vastly inferior stablemate, Camelot Knight, last year.

For all their successes at Cheltenham, the Irish are certainly due a win at Aintree. The most recent of their 16 victors was L'Escargot back in 1975, and since then only Greasepaint (three times), Monanore, Lastofthebrownies and Laura's Beau have reached the frame.

The owner JP McManus, triumphant in the Champion Hurdle with Istabraq, is set to launch a double-pronged attack with Wylde Hide and Time For A Run. Wylde Hide, trained by Arthur Moore, has run in the last two Nationals and unseated his rider late in the race, when seemingly beginning to run out of steam, both times. Time For A Run, the subject of a big ante-post gamble last year before a minor injury ruled him out, makes more appeal.

The big, strong Eddie O'Grady-trained 11-year-old is a thorough stayer, jumps well and had a satisfactory warm-up at Cheltenham when he was third in the Kim Muir. He acts on any ground and, as one who tends to need positive handling, will have the invaluable assistance of Norman Williamson - whose best-ever placing came last year when he was fifth on Master Oats - in the saddle.

His regular rider, Charlie Swan, however, has opted to partner one of the season's most progressive young staying chasers, Him Of Praise. Winner of his first five races this term, the eight-year-old has been practising over some specially built Aintree-style fences at Oliver Sherwood's yard but he may find others get round the real things more quickly.

Last year's runner-up, Suny Bay, is another who would have to buck a long-standing trend, bidding as he is to become the first grey to score since Nicolaus Silver in 1961. A rather fragile individual despite his imposing looks and size, he ran a tremendous race on ground faster than he favours when he chased home Lord Gyllene, but he heads the handicap this time and the last horse to carry 12st to victory was Red Rum 24 years ago.

Suny Bay, winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup last autumn, was a creditable fifth in the Gold Cup 11 days ago, but the ground may again be a worry and the nine-year-old's trainer, Charlie Brooks, will be among those praying for wet weather this week.

The 1996 National winner, Rough Quest, is another who represents both proven Aintree form and a touch of class. Though 12 (the last of that age to score was Little Polveir in 1989) he is lightly raced, but has yet to score this term and comes to the race off a fall in the Gold Cup, and the last horse to regain his title was Manifesto 99 years ago.

Tony McCoy, seemingly able to walk on water these days, faces a task worthy of his talents as he partners Challenger Du Luc, the horse who has given the impression that, while he doesn't mind racing too much, winning is another matter. The French-bred eight-year-old has bags of ability, but when it comes to the crunch is, for reasons of his own - some hidden discomfort, perhaps, or the memory of it - reluctant to reveal it. The unusual nature of the course may shock the quirky gelding into doing his best, but he is not guaranteed to stay the trip.

Jenny Pitman can never be under-estimated at Aintree, and last year's ninth-placed Nahthen Lad, without a win since taking the Sun Alliance Chase two seasons ago but well-handicapped on is best form, looks her best hope. The French raider, Ciel De Brion, looks sure to give his young rider, the trainer's son Thierry Doumen, a lot of fun but does not look good enough. This is probably not a vintage National, though no horse who conquers 30 fences and four and a half miles can truly be called bad. But the wish for a fair uninterrupted race will be uppermost in most minds.

Montgomery's tips

1 Earth Summit

2 Time For A Run

3 Him Of Praise

4 Suny Bay

Best long-shot: McGregor The Third.