As anticipation builds to Saturday’s Grand National, here’s a look at some highlights to watch out for.
Many Clouds: It’s all about history
Records aplenty can be set by the Many Clouds team as the Oliver Sherwood-trained nine-year-old – the age group that has provided most winners, incidentally – goes for a repeat success in the £1m Crabbie’s Grand National under jockey Leighton Aspell.
The horse, owned by businessman Trevor Hemmings, attempts to become the first since Red Rum in 1973 and 1974 to win back-to-back runnings of the famous steeplechase, first staged in 1839. In the history of the race, seven have been successful twice, though only Abd-El-Kader (1850 and 1851), The Colonel (1869 and 1870), and Reynoldstown (1935 and 1936) have done so in consecutive seasons.
Hemmings, meanwhile, is attempting to become the first owner to win the race four times, after previous successes with Hedgehunter (2005), Ballabriggs (2011) and Many Clouds. Aspell, who also rode Pineau De Re to victory in 2014, would be the first jockey to win three Nationals in a row.
The 39-year-old has partnered Many Clouds in all of his 24 races to date, most recently a breathtaking round of jumping to win a valuable race at Kelso.
Before Saturday’s race, in which the horse carries only a pound more in the handicap than 12 months ago, Aspell said: “You don’t want to tempt fate, but I’m on a good horse, the top weight, who’s favourite and deserves to be favourite on everything he’s done.
“I’m just hoping for a bit of luck – a horse can fall left or fall right, or a loose horse can turn up out of anywhere, and completely ruin your race in a flash – but hopefully I can get a good passage round. That’s the main thing.”
Richard Johnson: Will it be 20th time lucky?
All set to be champion jump jockey for the first time, having emerged from the shadow of the now retired AP McCoy, Richard ‘Dicky’ Johnson has the dubious distinction of having contested the most Grand Nationals without winning.
Since Celtic Abbey became his first mount in 1997, unseating him at The Chair, Johnson has taken part 19 years on the trot, and has twice been runner-up, on What’s Up Boys (2002) and Balthazar King two years ago.
This time he takes the mount on the Philip Hobbs-trained Kruzhlinin, a well-beaten 10th behind Pineau De Re in 2014 when under the care of Donald McCain, son of race legend Ginger. Kruzhlinin, along with The Last Samuri, was removed from McCain’s stable in October by owners Paul and Clare Rooney.
Johnson has won more than 3,000 races – making him easily the second most successful jump jockey of all time behind McCoy, to whom he was runner-up in 16 championships.
He said: “Kruzhlinin ticks a lot of boxes. He’s got a decent level of ability which is important and he travels well, along with the fact that he’s a big strong horse.
“You can never be too confident, but he fits the right profile.”
National win would be music to Bass’ ears
If things had worked out differently for rising star David Bass, he might have been performing on a very different stage on Grand National day.
From a musical family, the 27-year-old jockey played drums in a rock band before turning his attention to horse racing, and friends remain impressed by the wide variety of tunes emanating from the CD player in his car.
Enjoying his breakthrough season, with a half-century of winners now chalked up, he shouldn’t have much problem getting a Grand National tune out of strongly fancied The Last Samuri, trained – like 1990 winner Mr Frisk – by Kim Bailey.
The pair were impressive winners of March’s Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster – beating The Druid’s Nephew – so much so that if the official handicapper, who allotted the big-race weights in mid-February, had the opportunity to do so again now he would give The Last Samuri 12 pounds more than the 10st 8lb the horse has, a further pointer to an outstanding chance.
For his jockey, The Last Samuri represents a third go at the feature race in which he is yet to complete the course.
The bookies are praying for respite…
With every high street betting shop clogged up with customers, many of them in the once-a-year camp, from first thing on Grand National day, the betting industry estimates a whopping £150m will be staked.
Though a whole host of the runners will be supported for all kinds of different reasons, the bookmakers are approaching the big day with nerves jangling after facing the longest and most expensive payout queues ever when a string of fancied contenders dominated March’s Cheltenham Festival.
Many Clouds did the bookies a big favour when landing the race at odds of 25-1 last year, but this time he is all set to jump off a heavily backed, short-odds favourite, meaning a repeat win would be, in the words of one industry insider, “the stuff of nightmares”.
Mullins v Nicholls for trainer’s title
Ireland’s champion jumps trainer Willie Mullins continues his quest to wrest the British title – determined like its Irish counterpart by prize money – from Paul Nicholls with a string of runners throughout the three-day Aintree Festival, including up to four in the Grand National.
After a lucrative run at the Cheltenham Festival, along with his number one jockey Ruby Walsh, Mullins goes into Aintree £250,000 or so behind Nicholls, who has taken the championship for nine of the past 10 seasons.
The value of the feature in particular (£561,300 to the winner, and six-figure sums to the second and third) makes it potentially hugely significant.
Should Mullins succeed, it would be the first time the title has gone across the Irish Sea since victories for Early Mist and Royal Tan in successive Grand Nationals helped Vincent O’Brien be champion in the 1952-53 and 1953-54 National Hunt seasons.
Nicholls, successful with the grey Neptune Collonges in 2012, is due to saddle six runners, headed by a class act in two-time King George VI Chase winner Silviniaco Conti.
Carberry chasing history once again
Whoever wins the Grand National will, of course, create a mass of headlines, but were the winning rider at the end of one of sport’s great challenges to be female, the story of the world’s most famous steeplechase is bound to go global.
Nina Carberry has been earmarked to ride Knock House, currently second reserve, for trainer Mick Channon, a former England footballer.
Carberry has ridden in the race on five occasions, completing the course four times, with a seventh place on Character Building, behind Don’t Push It and McCoy in 2010, her best finish.
In a sport in which pedigree plays such a big part, the 31-year-old’s can be said to be gilt-edged with Aintree in mind. Her father Tommy has both ridden and trained a Grand National winner, having partnered L’Escargot – trained by his wife’s father Dan Moore – to victory over Red Rum in 1975, before saddling the 1999 victor Bobbyjo, ridden by his son, Nina’s brother, Paul.
Fifteen female riders have competed, with Nina’s sister-in-law Katie Walsh having done best when third on Seabass in 2012.
Last year, Australia’s iconic Melbourne Cup was won by the fourth female jockey to take part when Michelle Payne was successful on Prince Of Penzance.
While Carberry needs two withdrawals to be guaranteed a ride this year, it can surely only be a matter of time before perhaps the most iconic racing prize in the northern hemisphere goes the same way.
BBC Radio 5 live: We’re well-connected
As Radio 5 live spearheads the BBC’s coverage of the 169th Grand National – and indeed of all three days of the Aintree Festival – we can look forward to a rare insight from two of our team in particular.
Veteran jockey Andrew Thornton, whose quest for 1,000 wins has reached the nervy 990s, is due to partner big-race outsider Rocky Creek, trained by Nicholls.
Thornton, 43, will be taking his 14th mount and hoping to complete the course for only the fourth time.
Meanwhile, Gary O’Brien, one of the quartet of commentators required to ensure the most detailed description possible of the sprawling National course, is a member of the trio of Bodeen Bandits, owners of outsider Vics Canvas, trained in Ireland by Dermot McLoughlin.
O’Brien is far too polished a pro to allow owning a runner to affect his work, though if the 13-year-old is in or near the lead when the runners pass him with two fences to jump, that composure may be considerably tested.
Racing’s most challenging day
The Grand National is staged these days over four and a quarter miles and 74 yards of a course that has been subject to £1.5m of modifications following the deaths of two horses in the race both in 2011 and in 2012.
The principal change was to make the inner ‘core’ of the obstacles plastic rather than wooden, while there were also alterations to the landing sides.
Under not inconsiderable pressure at the time, officials had a brief to make things safer for all participants, while also “retaining the character” of the historic event. The feeling is that both were achieved.
While welfare issues jumped up the agenda again at the Cheltenham Festival after seven fatalities, in the past three Grand Nationals there have been none – though two in other races staged over the big fences during the three-day Festival – and also fewer fallers; most horses that do not complete the course unseat their riders or are pulled up.
Last year, both new procedures and the jockeys taking part received praise after the race began without incident following a string of chaotic false starts in previous years.
Any other business?
One of the best-backed runners in the Grand National has been 2015 runner-up Saint Are. Twelve months ago, the 10-year-old, trained by Tom George and due to be ridden by Paddy Brennan, was just one and three quarter lengths behind Many Clouds and six lengths in front of the third. In with one of the lowest weights in the handicap, Saint Are looked better than ever when winning a race at Doncaster in February and Brennan will be looking for better luck than in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, when he and Cue Card fell when challenging at the third-last fence.
Top trainer Jonjo O’Neill prepares two big fancies, last year’s fifth Shutthefrontdoor – is stamina an issue? – and Holywell, as he tries to emulate his 2010 winner Don’t Push It. The one-time champion jockey reports the pair in such fine fettle “I nearly thought I’d come back and ride one myself”.
For the first time in living memory, there is no runner from jump racing’s northern circuit, a further example perhaps of the sport’s widening North-South divide. The top 40 in the handicap make the cut, and principal northern hope Highland Lodge, winner of the Becher Chase over the famous obstacles in December for the Cumbrian stable of trainer Jimmy Moffat, narrowly missed it.