Irish-trained horses once more set to numerically dominate Aintree Grand National

Last year’s runner-up Vanillier installed a 12-1 favourite by some firms to go one better in April’s big race

Rather like good referees, handicappers prefer to go unnoticed, but those in charge of ratings were firmly centre stage on Tuesday when weights were revealed for the Randox Aintree Grand National and nine-handicap races at the upcoming Cheltenham Festival.

Any discrepancies between how Irish-trained horses are rated here and in Britain are an annual source of debate in the run-up to Cheltenham.

As for the National, the sparks that famously flew between Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary and the British Horseracing Authority’s lead handicapper Martin Greenwood over his controversial estimation of Tiger Roll led to the best Aintree performer since Red Rum being ruled out of a hat-trick attempt.

Greenwood’s latest National weights announcement for the big race in April lacked such drama, but did underline the strength in depth of the latest raiding party set to travel to Liverpool for the world’s most famous steeplechase.


A total of 56 of the 87 entries in the race are based in Ireland, including last year’s runner-up Vanillier who was installed an early 12-1 favourite by some firms to go one better this time for trainer Gavin Cromwell. The grey could appear at Fairyhouse on Saturday in the grade three Tote Bobbyjo Chase.

A reduction in the maximum number of runners for the National from 40 to 34 means there could be even more of an Irish stamp on the race this time, despite how last year a record 26 of the 39 horses lining up were trained here.

Last year’s winner, Corach Rambler, from Lucinda Russell’s yard in Scotland, and this season’s Welsh National hero Nassalam are the only cross-channel entries among the top dozen rated horses with “Shark” Hanlon’s star performer Hewick topweight.

Of the top 34 names, only seven are British-based, and there’s just a pair of home horses in the next 11, representing a potential level of dominance that has firms making it long odds-on there will be an Irish-trained winner on April 13th.

Signs of the changing nature of the National were also underlined at the weights’ launch. The race’s singularity used to mean it was the only race where the handicapper was allowed to deviate from official British Horseracing Authority (BHA) ratings. Greenwood didn’t exercise that option.

“I think the days of compression of the weights for horses at the top of the handicap, which reached its peak under my predecessor Phil Smith, are now well and truly over,” he said.

“This is due to the evolving nature of the Grand National itself and how it has changed in recent years. So, in many ways, I did not find this year’s race particularly difficult to handicap.

“With the reduction in field size to 34 runners this year, I would stand by my original advice that a rating of at least 145 is what you need to line up on the day.

Despite the diminutive Hewick facing the task of humping 11.12 on the big day, Hanlon conceded the King George winner and Cheltenham Gold Cup hopeful, “probably deserves” every pound.

“We always said that he’d be a National horse and there’s a month between the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the National this year, so I think it’s a big opportunity for him.

“The most important thing is that he gets good ground. With fewer runners in the race this year there won’t be quite as much weight between us and the horses at the bottom. In previous years the difference could be a fair bit more and we’d be giving more away,” Hanlon added.

Gordon Elliott’s numerical strength had the BHA testing the proposition of restricting the number of horses individual trainers that could run in the National, to eventually park the idea.

The Co Meath trainer burst on the scene in 2007 with Silver Birch’s success and won twice more with Tiger Roll. One more will see him emulate Fred Rimell and George Dockery as a four-time winner. He has 23 horses currently entered and qualified, eight of them in the top 34.

Asked which weights stood out for him, he said: “Galvin looks like he could be well handicapped. He was nearly topweight last year and he’s one who could be there. Chemical Energy is another. We’ve been keeping him for a bit of spring ground, so this has been the plan all year.”

Corach Rambler landed last year’s Ultima Chase at Cheltenham en route to Aintree glory and more National hints could emerge from the festival handicaps this time.

A total of 588 entries were made across the nine handicap contests on Tuesday with almost half of them coming from Ireland.

A year ago, Jazzy Matty was a sixth Irish winner in a row of the Boodles Handicap Hurdle and a remarkable 30 of the 47 entries left in it this time are from this country. Joseph O’Brien’s Lark In The Mornin, prominent in ante-post lists for some time, is among them. He is also entered for this Sunday’s Grade Three Winning Fair Hurdle to be run at Naas.

Separately, Gala Marceau’s claims for top-flight success in Cheltenham’s Close Bros Mares’ Hurdle will be put to the test when she lines up in Wednesday’s Grade Three highlight at Punchestown.

Last season’s dual-Grade One winner has a task on her hands on official figures in the Quevega Hurdle but should relish a step up to two and a half miles against just three rivals.

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Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column