Big Fella too hot to ignore
In the 2009 John Smith's Aintree Grand National, 15 horses crossed the Melling Road and turned for home tightly bunched.
It was an unprecedented sight in the long history of the world's most famous race, triggered by the handicapper's policy of consciously compacting the weights.
This year's contest is equally tight-knit, with just a stone and five pounds separating the top and bottom horses for a second successive year. Not including Madison Du Berlais at the head of the page, 39 runners are separated by 16lbs or less. With good ground prevailing, a pulsating contest is likely once more.
The net result of the handicapper's strategy, of course, is that those carrying over 11st, most of which could previously have been discounted in the search for the winner, now have less weight to concede to their rivals. Last year, tellingly, every one of the first four home carried 11st or more.
This is good news for the Irish contingent today. Of our 10 runners, six compete off 11st-plus. The two furthest up are Vic Venturi and Black Apalachi, and few have been more popular in recent weeks than Dessie Hughes' pair of course winners.
Of the two, Black Apalachi may have the biggest say. He was running a stormer before discarding Denis O'Regan 12 months ago, and his entire campaign has been geared towards seeking compensation this time round.
Mon Mome, a pound above him on 11st 7lb, is another at the upper end that should hold his own. Last year's winner is running in the race for a third time. His game effort to finish third in the Gold Cup last month proved that he is in the form of his life, and few recent winners will have gone back with such a strong claim.
Notwithstanding the chances of those in the top half, the winner is fancied to come from further down. Having gained invaluable experience of the course when sixth as a novice last year, Big Fella Thanks is impossible to ignore now.
Dropped three pounds since then, the handicapper has given Ruby Walsh's mount an incredible opportunity when you consider his form. On his seasonal debut, Big Fella Thanks found only the race-fit Carruthers too good at Newbury. Carruthers, fourth in the Gold Cup and second to What A Friend on Thursday, has shown how strong that form is.
Subsequently, Big Fella Thanks unseated Walsh when in contention at Kempton, before confirming his well-being by winning at Newbury last month. With a proper National jockey on his back in Walsh, the eight-year-old is fancied to give Paul Nicholls a first win in the race.
Admittedly, Big Fella Thanks is short enough at 15/2, but, as Hedgehunter and Comply Or Die proved in recent years, that price will be plenty generous if he is as well treated as he appears. The Package and Maljimar are two first-timers that will doubtless feature prominently if they take to the course, but Snowy Morning could give the selection most to do.
Third two years ago, Willie Mullins' 10-year-old carried 11st 8lb when well beaten 12 months ago. He has been dropped nine pounds since then, looks to be coming into form at the right time, and gets in off a tidy 10st 13lb now.
In the Aintree Hurdle, Nicky Henderson's in-form team could land another big pot with Zaynar.
It's hard to be too enthusiastic about the Champion Hurdle runner-up Khyber Kim given the way Nigel Twiston-Davies' horses have been running, while Zaynar, third at Cheltenham, is guaranteed to appreciate the return to two and a half miles. The only other Grade One on the card is the Maghull Novices' Chase, a cracking contest with any number holding chances.
Preference is for Edward O'Grady's Osana. Second in the big hurdle here in 2008, the track will suit Andrew McNamara's mount, and his third to Sizing Europe at Cheltenham is solid form.
1.45 -- Peddlers Cross
2.15 -- Osana
2.50 -- Zaynar (Nap)
3.25 -- Dom D'Orgeval
4.15 -- Big Fella Thanks
5.00 -- Magnum Force
5.35 -- Tetlami