JONJO O’Neill says Crabbie’s Grand National favourite Shuthtefrontdoor is on course to provide record-breaking rider AP McCoy with the perfect send-off from racing.
The trainer, who forged a great alliance with Great Habton’s Peter Easterby during his riding days, even joked about coming out of retirement to ride the ante-post favourite himself.
With McCoy, the 20-time champion jockey, almost certain to ride Shutthefrontdoor in his final spin over the Aintree fences on Saturday week before retirement, the 2014 Irish National winner could be the shortest-priced favourite since the Red Rum era four decades ago.
However, this does not perturb O’Neill, the mastermind behind McCoy’s one and only National success when Don’t Push It prevailed five years ago.
“We did think about giving him a run at Cheltenham but decided not to. I think he is a better horse on a flat track and secondly I did not want to give him a hard race at a time when he wasn’t as well as he is now. He is schooling well and is spot on,” said the trainer, speaking from his Cotswolds stables.
“He is a clean-winded horse, who is not hard to get ready. He was ready to run and win first time out at Carlisle. He is going to Aintree fresh and well. It is all down to AP now if he is going to ride him.
“You need to have a good classy horse for the National. Before, you needed a good jumper and a lot of luck, now it is a proper race. Aintree has done a great job with the track and the fences are first class.
“He likes to be up there and hopefully in the first half of the runners – that at least is my plan. If he got luck in running over the first mile, I would ride him myself.
“I don’t bet so it does not make any difference to me what price he is – I am just training the horse as though he was going for a little race at Stratford or whatever!
“Hopefully, AP is going to ride Shutthefrontdoor and the public will want to back him, looking for a fairytale story. We would all love that to happen, but it is a tall order.
“The only pressure on me is that Shutthefrontdoor gets there safe and sound. He is in the best form I can possibly get him. I would be more nervous if we had hiccups now but we had them in January and February. If he doesn’t win, we can blame whoever rides him!”
Significantly, O’Neill suggested the preparation had been more straight-forward in comparison to 2010 when Don’t Push It was largely unfancied before one of the greatest gambles in Aintree history caught the public’s imagination.
“Don’t Push It was a bit of a law unto himself. Alan Berry has done all the work with this horse, like he did with Don’t Push It. We think we have got it all right and are very happy with the way things have gone,” he added.
“Shutthefrontdoor is a lovely horse – a real old pet – and loves racing, while the other horse was half-mad, a character. He lacks experience as a jumper but I think he is quite clever, pretty accurate and knows what he is doing. If he does take to the fences, he will run a blinder.”
Charlie Hills says highly-regarded York winner Dutch Connection is on course for a tilt at the Qipco 2000 Guineas before a possible return to the Knavesmire for the Betfred Dante Stakes in mid-May.
Beaten by only two-and-a-half lengths by Guineas favourite Gleneagles in the National Stakes at the Curragh, he is one of three possibles in the famous Derby trial for the Lambourn-based trainer.
The Khalid Abdullah-owned Commemorative, who ran at the Breeders’ Cup, and maiden winner Purple Rock are also among the 69-strong entry.
“I’ve been really pleased with Dutch Connection – his work has been really good,” said Hills.
All the major Derby fancies have been given an entry, including the likes of John F Kennedy, Highland Reel, Gleneagles and Ol’ Man River from Aidan O’Brien’s yard.
Karl Burke beat the big battalions two years ago with Libertarian and he has entered Lord Ben Stack this year.
“He goes to Newbury for a conditions race on April 17. If he went and won or ran very well and was second to a good horse, then he would nearly certainly take his chance in the Dante,” said the Leyburn trainer. “He has filled his frame, strengthened and is doing everything right at the moment at home.”
Hambleton trainer Kevin Ryan, victorious last year with The Grey Gatsby, has entered Flaming Spear.
Meanwhile, Ryedale trainer Peter Niven’s Clever Cookie is among 27 entries for the Betway Yorkshire Cup for stayers.
The former hurdler won twice at York last year and Niven could not be happier with his stable star’s progress. “He has wintered well – it has been the first break he has had for 16 to 18 months. He is all the better for it,” said Niven.