MANY CLOUDS will never receive a better chance to make Crabbies Grand National history and become the first horse to win successive renewals of the world’s greatest steeplechase since Red Rum in 1974.
After carrying 11st 9lb to victory last April, Oliver Sherwood’s stable star will only have to bear an additional pound in this year’s renewal after handicapper Phil Smith chose to compress the weights in favour of established chasers.
How times change. After Red Rum exploited his light weight of 10st 5lb to collar the gallant Crisp on the line in the 1973 renewal, Red Rum shouldered 12st in 1974 before winning a historic third National in 1977 with 11st 8lb.
Sherwood said: “I did come here expecting to carry 11st 10lb and anything less would have been a bonus.
“I am very happy with him and that fact that we’ve got two Gold Cup winners and two King George winners in the race not top of the weights, I think says a lot for the race and how it’s going.
“To be mentioned in the same phrase as Red Rum is just unreal. Leighton (Aspell) gave him an unbelievable ride last year.”
Leeds-based bookmaker William Hill made Many Clouds 10-1 for the big race, with spokesman Jon Ivan-Duke saying the defending champion “has many of the attributes you would associate with Red Rum; he stays, he jumps well and he is courageous”.
William Hill is also offering odds of 100-1 on Many Clouds becoming the first three-time winner of the race since the aforementioned Red Rum.
Slightly disappointing on his seasonal reappearance in Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase last October, Many Clouds was only narrowly beaten by Don Poli, a leading Cheltenham Gold Cup contender, at Aintree last December before chasing home Smad Place at Cheltenham last month in a gutsy performance on bottomless ground.
However, the now retired Sir AP McCoy, who won the race on Don’t Push It in 2010, believes Jonjo O’Neill’s Holywell – 23rd in the handicap – could be very competitive off 10st 12lb.
A former Grade One winner over fences before finishing fourth in last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, Holywell has lost his way this season, but McCoy expects a return to form on better ground.
“I do like Holywell. If he is in the right frame of mind he is a very capable horse. He has not shown it yet this season, but that is the time of year he shows it,” he said. “He could perform well in it.”
Meanwhile, Neil Muholland, who served his racing apprenticeship in North Yorkshire with Ferdy Murphy, was relieved that The Druids Nephew was only allotted 11st.
This is the Cheltenham winner which was travelling ominously well last year before coming to grief under jockey Aidan Coleman. “He’s got 5lb more than last year and I’ve got to be happy with that,” said Mulholland, who has trained The Druids Nephew with this year’s National in mind.
However, it is very unlikely that any of the four Yorkshire-trained runners will make the cut.
Keith Reveley’s Night In Milan, tailed off last year, is 88th in the handicap – a field of 40 goes to post – and has been allotted 9st 12lb.
“That would rise to 10st if there were a raft of defections and the horse made the line-up.
The Saltburn trainer will run his horse in next Wednesday’s veterans’ chase at Doncaster before a possible tilt at the Grimthorpe Chase on Town Moor at the beginning of March.
“You would have to be very lucky to get a run,” conceded Reveley. “We’ll just have to keep our options open. He definitely got into a rhythm last year and was still right in there at the Melling Road before the second last. Perhaps a lighter weight would have made all the difference.”
Sue and Harvey Smith, victorious with Auroras Encore in 2013, will be even luckier if Mr Moonshine makes the cut.
Rated 94th out of the 126 entries, he needs 54 horses to be withdrawn and is paying the price for 13 months on the sidelines, though the veteran is due to reappear at Haydock this Saturday.
Former showjumper Smith believes insufficient regard was given to Mr Moonshine’s proven form over the Aintree fences and will instead look to aim the horse at the Midlands and Scottish Nationals.
As for Richmond trainer Alan Swinbank’s Big Water and Middleham-based Micky Hammond’s Rathlin, they are rated 97th and 113th respectively.
However, the handicap has been more favourable to Cumbria trainer Jimmy Moffatt’s Highland Lodge, who has not raced since winning last December’s Becher Chase over the National fences under Yorkshire-born jockey Henry Brooke.
This win has been rewarded with a weight of 10st 2lb and Highland Lodge, 65th in the handicap, will almost certainly make the cut on the basis that next month’s Cheltenham Festival is the main objective for many of the higher-rated horses.
Annie Power will wear a hood for the first time in public when she makes her eagerly-anticipated return to action at Punchestown today.
Willie Mullins’s brilliant eight-year-old had last year’s OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham at her mercy until suffering a well-publicised fall at the final flight and she has been off the track since bouncing back to winning ways at the Punchestown Festival last May.