O'Neill and McLernon to atone for National near miss with quirky Holywell
Last year's Gold Cup fourth bounced back to form at Cheltenham and looks well treated
After Rogue Angel's Easter heroics, Mouse Morris will today saddle First Lieutenant and Rule The World in his quest to complete a fairytale National double at Aintree.
Bryan Cooper, so assured on Don Cossack in the Gold Cup, missed out on that overwhelming Fairyhouse triumph.
In this evening's Crabbie's Grand National, of the Gigginstown Stud-owned trio, he has gone with First Lieutenant for Morris's in-form team.
Given that Ruby Walsh had, prior to his injury, got off Willie Mullins's recent Bobbyjo Chase winner Boston Bob to fill the void on Gigginstown's Sir Des Champs, Cooper might have been questioning his choice.
He wouldn't be human if he didn't, but First Lieutenant is the sensible pick. He has been around here before, and placed efforts this term behind Smad Place in the Hennessy and Don Poli in the Lexus were smart.
The flip side is that he is badly handicapped. He has never won a handicap, yet at 11 years of age is 12lbs higher than when third in the Hennessy, so he has it all to do under 11st 4lb.
Sir Des Champs, now ridden by Nina Carberry, also showed up well earlier in the campaign. While the 2013 Gold Cup runner-up is fairly treated, he has never been the cleanest jumper, which isn't ideal over these unique fences, notwithstanding that they are far less formidable.
Having never won over further than two-and-a-half miles, nor indeed over fences, Rule The World is hard to fancy, though he was third to Rogue Angel in the Kerry National.
It was surprising to see Walsh get off Boston Bob. He appeals as the pick of the quartet that Mullins relies on in his search for a second National victory.
Paul Townend takes over, having won the 2014 Melling Chase on Boston Bob on the 11-year-old's only previous visit.
With a 100pc completion record and the best National finish for a female jockey courtesy of Seabass's 2012 third, Katie Walsh's booking on Ballycasey is a plus, but the horse is disappointing.
Walsh's two other mounts have finished 13th. There are 13 Irish runners this year, the first time that exactly a baker's dozen will represent the raiders in the daunting £1m showpiece.
Maybe it will prove lucky, as it is now nine years since Silver Birch announced Gordon Elliott's fledgling brilliance by achieving glory under Robbie Power.
This time, Power falls in on Enda Bolger's Gilgamboa, while Elliott relies on the Daryl Jacob-ridden Ucello Conti.
Both have chances. Gilgamboa was hardly disgraced when a 10-length fifth behind Vautour at Cheltenham in March, while Ucello Conti has been placed in the Paddy Power and Thyestes Chases on its last two starts.
He took the scenic route at Gowran Park and it will help his cause if the rain arrives in volume.
Chances are that the ground won't be testing enough for Goonyella, but another Irish raider with each-way appeal is Morning Assembly. Pat Fahy's eight-year-old has returned from injury in decent form this term. A mistake three-out at Cheltenham cost him momentum, but he still ran a decent trial for this by keeping on to be fourth behind Un Temps Pout Tout in a three-mile handicap.
Morning Assembly is ground versatile and, as a former Grade One winner that beat Don Cossack as a novice, he is favourably treated off a mark of 150 for 10st 9lb.
The negative with Davy Russell's mount is that he has had just eight runs over fences, and history tells us that is short of the optimum level of experience for the National.
That said, Dont Push It did win on its ninth chasing start in 2010, so it can be done, and Shutthefrontdoor ran a blinder last year on just his seventh.
Jonjo O'Neill's 2015 fifth tired late on under AP McCoy 12 months ago, which was hardly surprising given that he hadn't run for five months.
Worryingly, he ran deplorably at Newbury last month, but, as we saw with Eastlake yesterday, O'Neill has a knack for turning horses inside out. If he does so with Shutthefrontdoor, off a pound lower mark for 10st 11lb, he and Barry Geraghty would have serious claims.
Last year's first and second, Many Clouds and Saint Are, also return. Both come here on the back of really encouraging wins, and are also well in according to future ratings.
Clearly, given the way that the race has been transformed by the handicapper, Many Clouds warrants respect under the hat-trick-seeking Leighton Aspell. Still, to win again under 11st 10lb would be a triumph of Red Rum proportions, and only time will tell if he is that good.
After winning at Doncaster last time, Saint Are is four pounds well in off a mark that is three pounds higher than that off which he ran in 2015.
Paddy Brennan's mount is a proven stayer over the extended four-mile-two-furlong trip, so he could be a big player under just 10st 5lb. Kim Bailey's The Last Samuri, which is 12lbs better off than he will be in future, is of note. He is a likeable sort on an upward curve, although he is another with just eight runs over fences to his name.
Holywell might be the one with the ticks in the most boxes. O'Neill's quirky nine-year-old has a touch of class, having been an excellent fourth in last year's Gold Cup and beaten none other than Don Cossack and Many Clouds in a Grade One novices' chase here in 2014. He is a horse that blooms in the spring, a point illustrated by a massively improved run in Morning Assembly's race at Cheltenham, when he sprinted clear with Un Temps Pour Tout in the manner of a horse that has really got its groove back.
In defeat, Holywell emerged with real credit to a well-handicapped winner.
Again, he is four pounds well in here off 153 for 10st 12lb. Indeed, given that he was as high as 163 when a close third to the doubtful stayer Silviniaco Conti in last year's Bowl, he is well treated - period.
The unknown, of course, is the marathon trip. Nonetheless, Holywell's most recent win came when he hacked up over three-and-a-quarter miles at Kelso last year. In short, stamina has always been his forte.
All told, then, at odds of up to 20/1, Holywell can prevail for O'Neill and his fellow Co Cork native Richie McLernon.
They were foiled a nose by Neptune Collonges with Sunnyhillboy in 2012, so glory here would constitute atonement for that galling near miss.
2 Many Clouds
3 Morning Assembly
5 Saint Are
6 The Last Samuri