Grand National: Phil Kirby’s Top Ville Ben flies the flag for Yorkshire at Aintree

Yorkshire’s only runner in this year’s renewal of the Randox Grand National – Top Ville Ben – is looking “fresh and well” according to his trainer ahead of his tilt at Aintree glory this afternoon.

Phil Kirby, who trains the 10-year-old at his Green Oaks Farm yard near Richmond, is confident his charge can run well under jockey Tommy Dowson at the climax of a “two-year plan” to get Ben, as he is known at home, into the National.

“He is looking very fresh and well, he looks amazing and we have got him in good order, hopefully,” Kirby told The Yorkshire Post on Thursday.

“Everything has gone perfectly to plan, the only thing I would like is more rain to be honest, the more rain we get the better. There’s plenty about but maybe not as much as we could do with, I would say.

Top Ville Ben ridden by jockey Tommy Dowson (centre) in action during the bet365 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby racecourse. (Picture: Tim Goode/PA Wire)

“He will go on alright regardless, but the more rain, the more it plays into our hands.”

Trainer Kirby’s Twitter account features a video of Dowson and Top Ville Ben schooling over National fences at Malton.

It gives the viewer an idea of the speed of travel and size of the Aintree fences as well as the daunting task facing all 40 runners and riders today.

So far, Top Ville Ben has four career wins – three at Wetherby, including the 2019 Rowland Meyrick Chase.

Top Ville Ben ridden by jockey Alain Cawley clears a hurdle on their way to winning the Cazoo Hurdle during day one of The Winter Million Festival at Lingfield Park Racecourse, Surrey. (Picture: Simon Marper/PA Wire)

From there he was due to be a leading contender for the 2020 renewal of the world’s greatest steeplechase before Covid intervened and the National was cancelled.

The horse then suffered a hairline fracture injury which kept him off the track for a year.

After a trip to France last spring he returned to Wetherby where he finished fifth in the Charlie Hall Chase last October.

The following month, he ran in the National trial, the Becher Chase, which is run over the unique National fences.

Racehorse trainer Phil Kirby at his yard in East Appleton, near Catterick. (Picture: PA)

The horse and jockey Dowson were travelling well until Ben fell, with the race being won by today’s ante-post favourite, the heavily-backed Snow Leopardess.

But that mishap cannot dampen Kirby’s enthusiasm for a horse viewed by bookmakers as an 80-1 outsider overnight.

After Aintree, Ben was taken back to Wetherby on Boxing Day where he finished third in the Rowland Meyrick, before confirming his well being with a victory in the Cazoo Hurdle at Lingfield in February.

His final appearance before today was when he finished second in the Grade 2 William Hill Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock on February 19.

But the National, with its £1m prize fund – and £561,300 for the winner – is the one Kirby, his staff and connections have been waiting for.

He said: “Ben’s schooled really well. We took him for a spin round in the Becher and he was jumping lovely but seemed to have a bit of a blip and ended up falling.

“It’s been a plan for a couple of years, I think he is off a very fair mark and I think if he jumps well and copes with the ground then I think he is a better chance than his price,” said Kirby, who also trained the popular and highly successful mare Lady Buttons to Group 2 success.

“We have kept his mark and so far everything has gone perfectly.

“I don’t want to go to make the numbers up and realistically we are going with some sort of chance and if he jumps well we’ve as much chance as a lot of them.”

Kirby’s first runner in the race was Don Poli back in 2019 and he has tried to keep Ben’s preparations the same, with the horse travelling down yesterday morning to get him settled in.

Another former Kirby inmate, Blaklion, runs in the National for the fourth time today, but missed his chance in the race for the trainer due to an injury when the horse was going well.

So it is all eyes on Top Ville Ben, who runs in the distinctive red and yellow colours of his owners, the Harbour Rose Partnership, and who live near to the famous old Liverpool track.

“The owners are from Ellesmere Port and Chester so it is brilliant for them as well, like their local dream and it is really exciting for them,” said Kirby.

The North’s other hope today is Mighty Thunder, ridden by Derek Fox and trained by Lucinda Russell and her partner Peter Scudamore at Kinross.

The Russell and Fox partnership know all about National glory having landed the 2017 renewal with One for Arthur.

But otherwise, Northern representation is thin on the ground in a race which sees top Irish trainer Gordon Elliott set to saddle a staggering eight runners.

But the final word goes to Kirby, who hopes his carefully laid out plan comes to fruition and whatever happens, that all the horses return home safely.

“That’s why you have got to take your chance. The ground might be a little bit more on the quicker side than we want.

“But it is not easy to get runners in the National so the dream is still alive.”