Richard Forristal: Big Fella Thanks can rise to occasion
The Midnight Club looks set to be usurped as favourite before the tapes go up for this afternoon's John Smith's Aintree Grand National, with jockey Ruby Walsh bidding for a third win in racing's showpiece event.
One of three hopefuls for the champion trainer Willie Mullins, who saddled Walsh's 2005 winner Hedgehunter, The Midnight Club is among 12 Irish-trained contenders in the 40-runner field, with last year's hero Don't Push It topping the weights under Tony McCoy.
Second on his reappearance in the Thyestes Chase in January, Walsh's mount accounted for four of today's rivals when landing the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse last time.
That was also a race that Hedgehunter won en route to glory at Liverpool, so it's easy to see why punters have latched on to a horse that remains unexposed over fences. With Walsh -- who has an enviable record in the National -- in the plate for the first time, The Midnight Club is worthy of serious consideration even though last year's winner Don't Push It is likely to head the market now.
One of his Bobbyjo victims, Oscar Time, is among the favourite's most serious threats. Martin Lynch's charge is four pounds better off here for a five-length beating and he has been trained especially for this, that Fairyhouse run being a first over fences following his second to Bluesea Cracker in last year's Irish Grand National.
Oscar Time's rider Sam Waley-Cohen, who is attempting to become the first amateur to win since Marcus Armytage on Mr Frisk in 1990 and who already has a landmark success in the Gold Cup on Long Run, also has a fine record at Aintree.
Patrick Mullins (Dooneys Gate), Nina Carberry (Character Building) and Robbie McNamara (Majestic Concorde) are three other amateurs with live prospects, while Dessie Hughes, whose Black Apalachi finished second in 2010, saddles Vic Venturi and In Compliance, both of which have valuable experience of the daunting course.
Gordon Elliott and Paul Carberry, who have each won the race before, also have a realistic chance with the recent dual point-to-point winner Backstage, a horse that was running well before being taken out of the race last year.
Bluesea Cracker, though, hasn't been helped by the lack of rain. If she can cope with the early pace, James Motherway's mare has plenty going for her. But while the Irish raiders have more than a fighting chance of bringing home the big-race booty for a seventh time in 13 years, a couple of ex-pats may spoil the party.
In Big Fella Thanks, Galway native Graham Lee and Wexford-born Ferdy Murphy have a horse that ticks all the National boxes.
Fourth last year and sixth as a novice in 2009, Big Fella Thanks certainly knows his way around Aintree. This season he has finished fourth to Riverside Theatre in a Grade One at Ascot before again taking fourth over two and a half miles in the Greatwood Gold Cup, and he doesn't have an insurmountable burden off 11st 1lb.
With the weights compressed in recent years, three of the last six winners have carried 11st or more, so the old requirement of less than 11st is no longer as pertinent. Big Fella Thanks is the ideal age at nine and he will appreciate the drying ground, having tired from the last fence 12 months ago after being ridden close to the pace early on.
His effort the previous year saw him gallop all the way to the line, so Lee, who won on Amberleigh House in 2004, is fancied to deliver one of his customary patient rides to produce the 20/1 shot as late as possible. It should make for a great watch.
The Aintree Hurdle also promises a magnificent, if less dramatic, spectacle. Last year's champion hurdler Binocular will be taken on by this year's runner-up Peddlers Cross, with Thousand Stars and Oscar Dan Dan representing the raiders' challenge. Thousand Stars has place claims under Katie Walsh, but this is expected to be Peddlers Cross' day.
A winner of a Liscarroll point-to-point two years ago, the Oscar gelding suffered his first ever defeat behind Hurricane Fly at Cheltenham, and the return to two-and-a-half miles today will give him an edge over Binocular.
Earlier, Rock On Ruby and Finian's Rainbow are also fancied to go one better than their respective Cheltenham seconds in the first two contests on the card, while Nina Carberry's booking on Plan A in the two-mile handicap hurdle catches the eye. Gordon Elliott's charge finished fourth in the Fred Winter at Cheltenham, form that stood up well when the runner-up Kumbeshwar pushed Zarkandar hard on Thursday.
Grand National Prediction
1 Big Fella Thanks
2 The Midnight Club
4 Oscar Time
5 Comply Or Die