RECORD-BREAKING rider AP McCoy will carry the hopes of an expectant sporting public when he lines up in his final Grand National today before hanging up his saddle.
The 20-times champion jockey says he will retire on the spot if Irish National winner Shutthefrontdoor – likely to be the shortest-priced favourite since Red Rum 40 years ago – beats one of the most competitive fields in the iconic race’s 186-year history.
More than £200m could be staked on the world’s greatest steeplechase, which is expected to attract a global television audience of 600 million.
Bookmakers could be forced to issue a profits warning on the London Stock Exchange if McCoy replicates his 2010 career-defining victory aboard Don’t Push It – Leeds-based William Hill expect to take 25,000 bets a minute in the run-up to the race.
McCoy, who has been enjoying a farewell tour since announcing his intention at the end of the season, believes in Shutthefrontdoor after opting to ride Jonjo O’Neill’s staying chaser over the well-regarded Cheltenham Festival winner Cause Of Causes.
“Jonjo has prepared the horse for the race and is very happy with him,” said McCoy, who warmed up for today’s race by winning yesterday’s feature Grade One chase on Don Cossack in scintillating style.
“There’s always pressure on you in whatever race you ride in, but the most pressure comes from within and as much as I want to perform for everyone else, I want to perform for myself.
“When the tapes go up in the Grand National it’s about concentrating on the job at hand, keeping things as simple as possible and getting to the winning post before everyone else.”
The jockey’s many well-wishers include North Yorkshire’s Bob Champion, who conquered cancer to win the 1981 National on Aldaniti – he believes Shutthefrontdoor can provide McCoy with a fairytale finish to his career.
“I’ve got a sneaking suspicion he’ll win,” said Champion. “If AP were to get the win, it’ll be his last ever ride and nobody deserves to go out on such a high more than him.
“One last big winner isn’t too much to ask from a rider of his quality and longevity.”
Yet, while all eyes will be on the former BBC Sports Personality of the Year in his final National, this year’s race – reduced to 39 runners following the injury-forced withdrawal of Carlito Brigante after yesterday morning’s final declarations – could be a year of firsts.
Many fancy Nina Carberry, victorious over the National fences on Thursday, to win on Irish raider First Lieutenant and become the first female rider to win the race – McCoy is among those to say it is only a matter of time before this happens.
The win would be particularly fitting – it is 40 years since Carberry’s legendary father Tommy won the National on L’Escargot and denied Red Rum a third successive triumph.
There is also strong support for Richard Johnson, the perennial bridesmaid to McCoy in the jockeys’ championship, and who hopes to break his own Aintree duck on last year’s runner-up Balthazar King.
Trainer Philip Hobbs has not raced Cheltenham’s cross-country specialist since November – he says Balthazar King is better fresh – and the National has always been this season’s target.
The same applies to North Yorkshire’s Night In Milan, who represents trainer Keith Reveley and his son James, who will be in the saddle. The Doncaster course specialist is trained on a dairy farm overlooking Saltburn.
“We’re going there as full as hope as you can be for a race with 39 runners over four and a half miles,” said Reveley senior.
“He’s run three really good races this season without winning and I think he’s been producing a career-best each time. I think he is still improving so we’ll give it our best shot.”
It would also be wrong to discount Middleham jockey Henry Brooke’s mount Across The Bay, who was hampered by a riderless horse last year and Mon Parrain, who is owned by Harrogate businessman John Cotton – the horse’s jockey is 17-year-old Sean Bowen, who is bidding to become the second-youngest winning rider in the race’s history.
However, while AP McCoy and Shutthefrontdoor are the sentimental choice, the horse to beat is the classy Cause Of Causes, who has stamina in abundance, winning form over four miles and is trained by Gordon Elliott, whose horses – like yesterday’s hero Don Cossack – are firing on all cylinders.