Big guns stand their ground in National

LAST YEAR’S winner Don’t Push It heads 74 remaining entries for the John Smith’s Grand National at Aintree on April 9.

Jonjo O’Neill’s 11-year-old gave multiple champion jockey Tony McCoy an emotional first success in the world’s most famous steeplechase last year, but will be forced to concede weight all round to his rivals this time.

The ante-post favourite is the Willie Mullins-trained The Midnight Club, one of 26 Irish-trained horses still standing.

The Midnight Club jumped to the head of the market with a defeat of stable companion Arbor Supreme in the Grade Two Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse on 23 February.

Other Irish contenders include the Martin Lynch-trained Oscar Time, last year's Irish Grand National runner-up, who could cap a dream season for amateur rider Sam Waley-Cohen following his totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup victory on Long Run last week.

Gordon Elliott, who sent out Silver Birch to a memorable success in the 2007 John Smith's Grand National, has another live contender in Backstage, who confirmed his wellbeing with a point-to-point victory on 6 March and is totesport's 12/1 second favourite with Oscar Time.

Ballabriggs, What A Friend, owned by Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, and Big Fella Thanks are other major players.

Paul Nicholls has four entries going forward including What A Friend, who is part-owned by Alex Ferguson and was a creditable fourth in last week's totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Nicholls also looks set to be represented by the 2009 Irish Grand National victor Niche Market.

Tidal Bay, sixth in last Friday's Totesport Gold Cup, is also set to take his chance on April 9.

“He has come out of Cheltenham grand and goes to Liverpool,” said trainer Howard Johnson.

“He doesn't over-exert himself and is bouncing and there is nothing else to go for. It was a bit lively for him at Cheltenham and if they had had a bit more rain he might have finished fourth.”

Tidal Bay, who is as short as 33-1 for the Grand National, will be running at his sixth National meeting having finished second in the champion bumper of 2006, won the Grade 1 2m novice chase and finished fourth to Big Buck's in the Grade 1 Liverpool Hurdle last year.

Big Fella Thanks, fourth last year when trained by Paul Nicholls, will be joined by stablemate Watch My Back.

His current trainer, Ferdy Murphy, is thrilled with the condition of the track and feels his charge is better equipped to handle the marathon four-and-a-half-mile trip this season.

“It’s nice to get them away for the day, it keeps them on their toes and gives them an important change of scenery,” said the West Witton handler.

“The ground is fantastic and I’d hope they’d keep it exactly the same for the big day. He’s strengthened up a lot more this year and his two prep runs went according to plan. He looks fantastic and I think he would have a very good chance.

“I think we will ride him more conservatively this year. To be fair to Barry (Geraghty), he was thrust into the race after Ruby (Walsh) got injured and the horse ran with the choke out a little bit. Hopefully we’ll ride him the same way Graham (Lee) did when he won on Amberleigh House – that is to hunt away and leave it late.

“Graham will definitely be prepared for him this year.”

The Evan Williams-trained Deep Purple is one of eight to have been taken out, along with Tatenen, Tricky Trickster, Dream Alliance, Snowy Morning, Gullible Gordon, Meanus Dandy and The Sliotar.

lAintree might have to water the track before the National meeting gets under way on April 7, clerk of the course Andrew Tulloch reported yesterday.

Looking ahead to the Aintree showpiece, Tulloch said: “We’ve had a couple of dry days and we will keep monitoring the forecast. It’s looking that we are going to be dry for the next week and we will try and maintain what we have got.

“At the moment we would be looking at good, good to soft on the Mildmay course and probably good to soft on the National. If we need to water we will.”

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