Irish eyes on National prize
The prospect of an Irish-trained winner of the Aintree Grand National, boasting a record prize fund of £975,000 this year, received a mathematical boost yesterday, when the entries for the April 14 extravaganza were unveiled.
In all, 31 potential raiders, including Arthur Moore's 2011 Irish Grand National hero Organisedconfusion, have been put in the Liverpool showpiece, a figure in keeping with recent times. However, year on year, the overall entry is down 20 to just 82, meaning that the Irish share currently stands at 38pc.
The total figure comes as a blow to Aintree chiefs who drew the ire of traditional racing fans back in August by announcing plans to lessen the severity of some of the fabled spruce fences.
Despite the race's unique challenges continuing to attract a growing audience -- the BBC viewing figure of 8.8m for 2011 was up 1.2m on 2010 -- two equine fatalities in last year's renewal prompted the authorities to act.
In addition to the fence alterations, entry requirements have been tightened. Six-year-olds can no longer participate, while every runner must now have been placed in the first four in a chase of three miles or more by March 20, and be rated 120 or higher.
However, it would be wrong to conclude that the new stipulations and course modifications are the sole cause of the decline, as this is the fifth year in a row that numbers have fallen, albeit it is the most severe drop in that time. The record entry for the race was a massive 152 in 2005, but this is the first time that the initial entry stage has attracted fewer than 100 horses since 1996, when the first showing also clocked in at 82.
That year, the final line-up fell 13 shy of the maximum field of 40. Julian Thick, managing director at Aintree, put the steep drop in potential runners down to a higher quality of horse being attracted to the race, with this year's entry topped by Jonjo O'Neill's recent Lexus Chase winner Synchronised.
"The number of entries is down on last year but we believe this is a testament to the status of the race these days," Thick suggested.
"Owners and trainers are now taking a more selective approach to the horses they enter, as the increasing quality of the runners we attract to the National means that lower-rated horses no longer have any prospect of a run."
Ballabriggs, successful under Jason Maguire last year for Donald McCain, is the 16/1 favourite to retain his crown, with the 2009 winner Mon Mome as big as 40/1. Apart from Organisedconfusion, the Irish challenge could be spearheaded by Willie Mullins, who won the race with Hedgehunter in 2005 and has put 12 in this time.
The champion trainer's On His Own thrust himself into the reckoning by running away with last week's Thyestes Chase, while today's Clonmel runner The Midnight Club, sixth last year, and Quel Esprit are others that could play a part. At 25/1 apiece, those three are the shortest priced of the Irish contingent.
Ted Walsh, whose Papillon scored in 2000, has put in Saturday's Leopardstown Chase winner Seabass, while Gordon Elliott could bid for his second triumph with Backstage -- 10th last year -- and Tharawaat. Elliott's 2007 winner Silver Birch was the last Irish winner of the Aintree spectacle, the weights for which will be released on February 14.
Next month's Cheltenham Festival, of course, is of more immediate concern. Co Down handler Brian Hamilton yesterday confirmed that Moscow Mannon, so impressive when recording his third successive bumper victory at Gowran Park last week, is an intended runner in the championship event at Prestbury Park.
Tony Martin was less clear-cut about Bog Warrior, a faller at Christmas, but whose form received a boost when Flemenstar -- which he beat at Navan in November -- ran away with the Irish Arkle on Sunday.
The eight-year-old has entries in the three main novice events at Cheltenham, and Martin revealed: "He has plenty of options coming up and we'll see where we're going after he does a bit of work this weekend. We won't be making plans for Cheltenham until later in the month."
John 'Shark' Hanlon has reported that Hidden Cyclone, beaten for just the second time when third to Sir Des Champs on Saturday, did not scope cleanly after the race.
"We had him scoped and he wasn't right, so that explains a lot," Hanlon said. "We'll leave him for a bit and then probably go to Naas in a month's time."