Barely has the ink dried on the Cheltenham Festival formbook than plans are being mooted for jump racing's next major pitstop -- the Aintree Grand National.
The Liverpool course's showcase meeting begins three weeks today and yesterday Willie Mullins, trainer of National market leader Prince De Beauchene, hinted that the nine-year-old would be the mount of Ruby Walsh, the most successful Grand National jockey currently riding.
Mullins has a team of six among the 59 remaining in the race, all of which will make the 40-horse cut. Prince De Beauchene, which showed his credentials last month by winning the National trial at Fairyhouse, is joined by another in Graham Wylie's colours, On His Own, plus Quel Esprit, The Midnight Club, Quiscover Fontaine and Apt Approach.
"We'll see closer to the time what will go to Aintree," said the Carlow-based trainer, who has one National -- Hedgehunter in 2005 -- on his CV, "but I'll be happy just to get Graham Wylie's two horses there. They'd be a very nice team on their own."
Walsh has won two Nationals -- on his first ride in the race in 2000 on Papillon, trained by his father Ted who has the well-fancied Seabass in this year's race, and on Hedgehunter. In addition, he has finished in the first four home four times and failed to complete only once in his 10 rides. "I haven't asked him yet what he'd like to ride," added Mullins, "but I should imagine that he'd always think it's nice to ride a favourite."
Prince De Beauchene is generally a 9/1 shot for the £975,000 marathon. On His Own, winner of the Thyestes in January, is a 20/1 shot. Quel Esprit, ruled out of the Gold Cup after Paul Townend felt him lame on the morning of the race, had remained at an English veterinary practice but is due home today. "He seems fine now," said Mullins, "but we'll see what he's like once he gets home before making plans."
The champion trainer also issued an upbeat report on Hurricane Fly following the star hurdler's disappointing defeat in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham last week. Hurricane Fly, the reigning champion going into the race, was sent off the odds-on favourite but could only finish third behind Rock On Ruby and Overturn.
"He was probably a little disappointing on the day and he probably wasn't as keen as he usually is," said Mullins. "We were hoping settling better would improve him but it didn't and we paid the price, but hopefully we'll get him back to winning ways by Punchestown."
Another Cheltenham third, Four Commanders, is set to tackle the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse on April 9. Only a six-year-old, he is a brother to Gold Cup winner Kicking King and finished a close third in the four-mile National Hunt Chase last week.
Trainer Mouse Morris feels he benefited greatly from racing on decent ground for the first time this season and hopes he can creep in towards the foot of the weights for the Easter Monday showpiece.
"If he's okay, and he is so far, he'll probably get an entry in the Irish National," said Morris. "He went up 2lb so he'll be knocking on the door to get in but he wouldn't be guaranteed.
"He's a different horse on better ground so we knew he was good as he'd been running well on bad ground."
In Flat news, Richard Hughes will learn whether he has a realistic chance of fighting for the jockeys' championship at a hearing on March 28. Hughes picked up a ban in India for not riding to instructions, an offence that does not exist in Britain.
If the ban is reciprocated by the British Horseracing Authority, as has been requested by officials in India, Hughes would not be able to ride until April 29. Given that the new turf season begins at Doncaster on March 31, Hughes would be a month behind the pacesetters in the race to be champion.