Graham Dench looks at some of the stories that surround Saturday's big race.
No Randox Health Grand National winner has returned successfully the following year since the great Red Rum way back in 1974.However, no horse since has looked as well equipped for the task as Tiger Roll, the diminutive Flat-bred nine-year-old who has been defying expectations ever since he first set foot on a racecourse.
Plenty of winners of the world’s most famous race have come back and been placed, but mishaps and disappointments are every bit as common. For every Hedgehunter or Comply Or Die, both gallant seconds the year after they won, there is an Aldaniti, who fell at the first fence, or a Many Clouds, who trailed in the last of 16 finishers.
Owner Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss, once described the Gordon Elliott-trained Tiger Roll somewhat charmlessly as “a little rat of a thing”, but he surely sees him differently now. Punters certainly do, and bookmakers have been living in fear of a repeat win ever since last month’s fourth win at The Festival™, presented by Magners, in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase.
Tiger Roll held on by a fast-diminishing head in last year’s National, but he won with ridiculous ease at Cheltenham and that form suggests he is a much better horse now than he was then. It’s no wonder, then, that he is set to go off the shortest-priced favourite in modern times.
He is such a nimble and athletic little chaser - and partnered once more by the oh-so-canny Davy Russell - that you would fancy him to dance around any racing ‘traffic’.
Who knows? You wouldn’t put it past him to win again this year and then come back again at a future date and land a third success, just as Red Rum did in 1977.
FLASH GORDON PLAYS A RECORD HAND OF 11
Gordon Elliott is set to saddle a Grand National record of 11 runners, and it would have been 13 but for the sale at auction after racing on Thursday of his former Grade 1 winners Don Poli and Outlander.
Don Poli, regarded as the next big thing after his two wins at The Festival but subsequently unkindly dubbed “Don Slowly”, fetched £170,000 and will race for owner Darren Yates, who was desperate still for a runner in the race after his recent £300,000 purchase Blaklion had to be scratched with a minor injury at the end of last week.
Outlander fetched £165,000 just minutes later, and he will race for a syndicate within Phil Cunningham’s Rebel Racing set-up, best known for their Flat racing exploits including the dual 2000 Guineas success in 2007 of Cockney Rebel.
Neither horse will be going anywhere near their new homes before Saturday’s race, but if either happens to win it won’t be Elliott getting the credit. Not in the record books anyway. For officially Don Poli will race for Yorkshire trainer Phil Kirby and Outlander will be running for Newmarket saddler Richard Spencer.
It will be Kirby and Spencer who get the trainer’s percentage and most of the credit if either finishes in the money, which seems hard on Elliott. But he already has coveted National victories on his CV through Silver Birch in 2007 and Tiger Roll last year.
Both are longshots, so it’s unlikely. But then this is the Grand National. Anything can happen.
KING ARTHUR BIDS TO REGAIN HIS CROWN
Tiger Roll is not the only returning former winner bidding to regain the title of Grand National winner.
However, while Tiger Roll has gone from strength to strength since winning, 2017 winner One For Arthur missed a full season through injury and has unseated his rider on both public appearances since his return.
Despite that unimpressive form of late, trainer Lucinda Russell and her partner – legendary jockey Peter Scudamore – have been making positive noises about the great Scot.
The pair say One For Arthur has put in a brilliant bit of work at home and a pleasing racecourse gallop at Carlisle.
Judged on recent evidence he wouldn’t inspire you with confidence. But then again, the Aintree fences might be just the ticket to get him back in the winners’ enclosure.
A MAGICAL MOMENT FOR JOCKEY KENNEDY
It’s part of the Grand National’s enduring appeal that just about every winner seems to have a touching or quirky ‘human’ story attached to it, although we don’t always see it coming.
It’s not well known yet on this side of the Irish Sea, but Saturday’s race features a jockey who has had to fight cancer and who, touch wood, has beaten it.
Paddy Kennedy, an older brother of multiple Grade One winner and boy wonder Jack, was operated on for a tumour on his bladder in the summer of 2017.
His career has been blighted by injury setbacks and illness and, though 10 years older than Jack, he has ridden only a fraction of the winners. However, he is a stalwart of Jessica Harrington’s set-up, and on Thursday was confirmed to ride the stable’s Magic Of Light.
A first ride in Saturday’s £1 million race will be a huge thrill for one of the weighing room’s unsung heroes, and it’s a great gesture from Harrington, who could have gone for someone more experienced over the fences.
It will make a great story if Magic Of Light were to win, and stranger things have happened.
JADE IS SIMPLY MADE FOR AINTREE SUCCESS
Reading the national dailies it would be easy to assume that the Grand National is the only race of any consequence taking place on Saturday.
However, the card offers plenty to keep everyone occupied until the off at 5.15pm, with three supporting Grade One events - a novice hurdle over 2m 4f, a novice chase over 2m, and a 3m hurdle.
Young Jack Kennedy, who rides Dounikos in the National, has a fantastic opportunity in the last of those Grade Ones. The 3m Ryanair Stayers Hurdle, is an absolute cracker, but last month’s Champion Hurdle sixth Apple’s Jade is different class to the others if returning to her best form.
Kennedy has ridden Apple’s Jade 10 times, and his six victories on her include four at Grade One level, three of them this season at distances ranging from 2m to 3m. The Champion Hurdle, in which she started 7-4 favourite, was bitterly disappointing, but Cheltenham might not be her track and Aintree could hardly be more different.