Niche has rhythm to give rivals the blues
Irish trainers are represented by 10 of the 40 runners in the John Smith's Grand National (4.15) as they strive to post a sixth victory in the last 11 renewals of the world's most famous race.
Every one of them has been plotted up, but they may not have the collective power to deliver the prize. Nevertheless, the key piece of form originates from Ireland -- and one race in particular that has had a strong historical bearing on the outcome of the Aintree spectacular.
The Irish equivalent at Fairyhouse is the contest in question. And Niche Market, which had several of today's opponents behind when winning the race 12 months ago, has the requisite qualities to follow up this afternoon.
Some compelling Grand National statistics have emerged as the race continues its evolution. Every winner in the last 37 years had previously won a race over at least three miles. Ballyholland, Conna Castle and Made In Taipan are unlikely trend-buckers, while Big Fella Thanks, which won over two and a half miles last time out, appeared to run out of stamina when sixth last year. For this reason the Ruby Walsh-ridden favourite looks bad value at 7/1.
Eight-year-olds also have an awful record at Aintree. The 92 that have gone to post in the last decade have yielded just one winner, which makes it hard to enthuse about Arbor Supreme, Backstage or Can't Buy Time. Tricky Trickster and The Package, a pair of fancied seven-year-olds, appeal even less.
Another stat produced by the number-crunchers is that horses burdened with more than 11st are up against it. Only Hedgehunter, which carried 11st 1lb to victory in 2005, has defied the impost since Corbiere triumphed in 1984.
This one, however, should be taken with a pinch of salt, since the English handicapper has redefined how the Aintree weights are framed. The top of the handicap is now compressed to the point where 15 of the 40 runners are weighted above 11st.
The more alert among you will have noticed that Niche Market carries 11st 4lbs, which is convenient to my argument, yet the point remains valid. To categorically strike out the 15 in question -- many of them fancied -- would be an act of folly.
Two of Ireland's best prospects are trained by Dessie Hughes, who felt Black Apalachi would have won 12 months ago had he not unseated Denis O'Regan when leading at the 22nd fence. With the ground drying out, conditions will be similar to last year, but Black Apalachi also came to grief in 2008. He is acquiring the look of a nearly-horse, so Vic Venturi is preferred.
Hughes took Vic Venturi to Aintree in November for the Becher Chase and the 10-year-old responded with a convincing victory over the National fences. That experience will stand him in good stead and he has sufficient class to make a bold bid.
The last two Grand National winners both return for more, and of the pair, Comply Or Die is preferred to Mon Mome, which defied massive odds 12 months ago when Comply Or Die finished second. The latter approaches the race in good form, and while Mon Mome ran impressively to finish third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, that huge effort may leave its mark.
Others which can play a part include Snowy Morning, State Of Play and Character Building, the latter ridden by Nina Carberry and a lively prospect if his obvious quirks don't prompt him to down tools early on.
However, Niche Market's credentials have strength in depth. He did fade after leading for a long way in the William Hill Trophy at Cheltenham last month, yet crucially, he did not have a hard race. In the process he again jumped with aplomb, as he had when just collared by Tricky Trickster at Newbury in February.
Niche Market is a 'rhythm' horse, which means that he can really flow between the obstacles. The ground has come right for him, and with the top of the Aintree fences stiffened this year, his accurate jumping is definitely a bonus.
It goes without saying that he requires a clear passage over the first three fences, where so many Grand National dreams are shattered. Given that, he holds attractive claims.