IF Yorkshire’s Grand National jinx is to end – there has been no locally-trained winner of the world’s greatest steeplechase since Merryman II in 1960 – it will be down to three horses.
The initial 82 entries – 20 less than last year after entry rules were modified following two equine fatalities – include Malcolm Jefferson’s According To Pete and King Fontaine, plus Brian Ellison’s durable Neptune Equester.
Both men train in Malton, with According To Pete’s reputation – and prospects – enhanced by front-running victories in Wetherby’s Rowland Meyrick Chase and then Haydock’s Peter Marsh Chase 10 days ago.
Now 11, and owned locally by Pete Nelson, the 25-1 prospect would relish soft conditions at Aintree on April 14 – but Jefferson is taking nothing for granted.
“I think both will make the 40-runner cut but we’ll have to just wait and see what happens with the weights in a fortnight,” said Jefferson.
“He’s a small horse so I wouldn’t want According To Pete to have more than 11 stone. He’s fine after Haydock but we’ll see what the handicapper does.”
King Fontaine, owned by Trevor Hemmings, whose Ballabriggs was victorious last year, fell in the Peter Marsh and Ellison’s Neptune Equester is another with form to prove. Fifth in the Rowland Meyrick, he was a distant 12th to Colin Tizzard’s Hey Big Spender when backed to win Warwick’s Betfred Classic Chase last month.
Only horses aged seven or above can now compete and every runner must have been placed in the first four of a chase of three miles or more by March 20, and be rated 120 or above.
Joining the Donald McCain-trained Ballabriggs at the head of the market are the David Pipe-trained Junior and Jonjo O’Neill’s Lexus Chase winner Synchronised, though the latter’s prospects could depend on whether he contests the Cheltenham Gold Cup and if his rider AP McCoy believes the likely top weight will be suited to Aintree’s unique test.
Other entries of note include McCain’s Weird Al, who won Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase last October, and Fair Along, who won the 2009 and 2010 renewals of the John Smith’s Hurdle at the track under former champion conditional Rhys Flint.
Doncaster’s Sky Bet Chase winner Calgary Bay is the solitary entry of former Gold Cup-winning trainer Henrietta Knight, who is still seeking a first National triumph while Saltburn jockey James Reveley holds Always Right, trained in County Durham by John Wade, in the highest regard.
One Yorkshire horse who will not be running is Big Fella Thanks, who was seventh in last year’s race after holding every chance approaching the penultimate fence before fading.
Trainer Ferdy Murphy had hoped to see his charge return to Aintree this Spring, but he has instead been given the year off.
“He’s out in the field at the moment and he won’t run this season,” said the North Yorkshire handler. “We found out he had a fibrillating heart after the National last year, so we got that sorted, but I think it has just taken him a bit of time to get over that.
“There wasn’t a whole lot wrong with him but the vet just wasn’t entirely happy with him and luckily the owners are patient and said we’d give him time. Hopefully, we can go to Aintree next year all guns blazing.”
The odds, however, are that the National will be won by Ireland – Willie Mullins, who trained 2005 victor Hedgehunter and who recorded his 100th winner of the season yesterday at Down Royal, holds 12 entries. They are headed by The Midnight Club, the probable mount of twice winner Ruby Walsh.
In comparison, Britain’s champion trainer Paul Nicholls has just two entries – Neptune Collonges and Niche Market – as he seeks his first National. Nicky Henderson has three – Burton Port, Quantitativeeasing and Sky Bet Chase runner-up Shakalakaboomboom.
The big freeze claimed yesterday’s Ludlow and Leicester cards, and today’s jumps meeting at Wincanton must pass an early morning inspection.
Tomorrow’s card at Chepstow hinges on a 1.30pm check today while frost sheets have been deployed on Catterick’s take-off and landing areas in an attempt to safeguard its scheduled meeting. The North Yorkshire track was raceable yesterday.