'Assembly' in line to pursue National glory
Pat Fahy is dreaming of Grand National glory after Morning Assembly was allotted 10st 9lb in a high-class renewal of the Aintree showpiece that British handicapper Phil Smith feels is the culmination of his efforts to transform the race into a more elite affair.
Following the publication of the weights, which are headed by last year's victor Many Clouds, Smith, the British Horse Racing Authority's Head of Handicapping, has described this year's National cast as "by some considerable distance the highest quality".
For some, Smith's compaction of the weights has, along with the sanitisation of the once-formidable course, decreased the element of lottery that made the National great. Both developments ultimately benefit those that ply their trade in the game's upper tiers.
Consequently, purists argue that the National's magic isn't what it was.
However, having attracted among 126 entries, Gold Cup winners Long Run and Lord Windermere, dual King George VI Chase hero Silviniaco Conti, Gold Cup fancy Don Poli and dual Irish Gold Cup winner Carlingford Lough, Smith feels vindicated. "I've achieved what I set out to all those years ago," he told theguardian.com "The job is 99pc done. A dead-heat would make it 100pc. I never thought we'd get Gold Cup and King George winners and none of them would be top-weight."
Co Carlow-based Fahy could fashion a result for the less well-heeled. His smart nine-year-old Morning Assembly has returned after nearly two years off to twice be second, latterly to Smashing in Saturday's Red Mills Chase. Morning Assembly has been trimmed from 66/1 to as low as 40/1 to triumph in Liverpool on April 9.
"That's a lovely weight," Fahy said of his stable star's lot. "He just struggled in the ground in Gowran. He was finding it hard to jump out of it, so he ran a very good race in the circumstances.
"He has come out of it well. The Grand National is the main aim with him and everything is just slotting into place. All being well we'll go for the three-mile-one-furlong handicap chase on the first day of Cheltenham and then on to Aintree."
Many Clouds, Don Poli, Silviniaco Conti, Carlingford Lough and Valseur Lido have all been eased a pound specifically for the National by Smith.
The 2014 winner Pineau De (up two pounds), Alvarado and Highland Lodge (both up six pounds) have been upgraded on the basis of having shown a liking for the modified course.
As such, some of those seeking to end the Irish raiders' drought in the National since Silver Birch won in 2007 have had their chance enhanced, although others will, as ever, be racing off a higher mark for simply crossing the water. For example, Gordon Elliott's Ucello Conti, third in the Thyestes, is in off 10st 8lb for 149, a five-pound higher mark than his Irish rating.
Willie Mullins' son Patrick has confirmed that Cheltenham will take priority for Don Poli (second top-weight on 11st 9lb, a pound behind Many Clouds) and Valseur Lido (11st 6lb).
"The plan is to go for the Gold Cup and then see about the Grand National - a little like Many Clouds last year," he said of Don Poli. "Valseur Lido has a nice weight and we think that, the further he goes, the better he is. Again, the plan is to go for the Gold Cup and then re-evaluate.
"Ballycasey (10st 6lb) has been disappointing on his last two runs, but I think when he gets spring ground, he will be a different animal. He was jumping particularly well when he met an unusual obstacle in poor old Balthazar King at the Canal Turn last year. He would look to have a good chance if he gets there in one piece."
Among the 38 Irish entries, there are seven from Closutton, while Elliott has six engaged, his others including Cause Of Causes (10st 1lb) and Roi De Mee (10st 13lb), which is on a 10-strong Gigginstown Stud list that includes Sandra Hughes' Irish Grand National victor Thunder And Roses (10st 6lb).
As well as John Kiely's Carlingford Lough (11st 7lb) and Cause Of Causes, JP McManus has nine entries, including Enda Bolger's Gilgamboa (11st 1lb) and Jonjo O'Neill's 2015 fifth Shutthefrontdoor (10st 11lb). Jim Dreaper's Goonyella, vying for second favouritism at 25/1 behind Many Clouds, will carry 10st 8lb if the title-holder stands its ground.