Finding a Ladbrokes Irish Grand National winner is rarely easy, but teasing out today's competitive handicap – with a huge field of runners aiming at a very lucrative €250,000 pot – is the sort of April 1st challenge to make one look like any sort of fool.
The original declared list of 30 runners was reduced yesterday when Questions Answered was taken out due to a bruised foot. But all the expected major players remain on track for Fairyhouse and its traditional Easter highlight.
They include ante-post favourite Rich Revival, five runners from Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown Stud, and two from Willie Mullins's all-powerful yard, as the champion trainer pursues a first win in the Irish National.
Ruby Walsh rides Mullins’s Marsonnien as the jockey pursues a third win in the race, while his sister Katie will be on board one of the O’Leary quintet, Panther Claw.
Walsh’s great rival Tony McCoy rides Competitive Edge for JP McManus. But it could be McManus’s other hope, Carlingford Lough, that provides jockey Niall “Slippers” Madden with a welcome return to the limelight.
It is seven years since Madden touched the heights of Grand National glory at Liverpool and having conquered the ultimate lottery, he knows better than most that Nationals of whatever hue can make a nonsense out of confident predictions.
But circumstances look to have provided Madden with a good shout of again advertising his big-race credentials.
The man who inherited his nickname from his father “Boots” looked destined to be the next big-thing in the Irish jockeys’ room when at just 20 years of age he guided Numbersixvalverde to a memorable Aintree National success in 2006.
Later that year Madden scored at Grade-One level on Jazz Messenger and Nickname, but it is fair to say the ex-champion amateur has found it tougher at the highest level since then.
Boost to career
He remains among the top-20 riders in the table but Carlingford Lough is his sole ride today. It is his ability to make light weights that continues to provide a valuable career boost.
It certainly looks like helping Madden today. McCoy’s options were restricted since he couldn’t hope to do the featherweight 9st 11lb on Carlingford Lough’s back, and testing ground conditions look like making every pound count over the marathon trip.
The John Kiely-trained runner has yet to win in five starts over fences, but maiden status doesn’t look a big problem in a race where Marasonnien is also winless over the big obstacles.
Judged on his early reputation, Carlingford Lough has proved relatively disappointing over fences so far. But he is at the right end of the handicap and could step-up significantly over much the longest trip he has faced to date.
Any improvement in ground conditions will also help him, a comment that doesn’t apply to Panther Claw.
Michael O’Leary’s dour-staying grey won a valuable handicap a fortnight ago on his favoured mud.
"If someone had said to me a couple of months ago Panther Claw would be running in an Irish National I'd have asked them what they were on, but he's improved and relishes testing conditions," said Panther Claw's trainer Paul Nolan.
He said Panther Claw should provide Katie Walsh with a realistic chance.
Plenty of others have much more to prove in terms of distance, including Competitive Edge, a big-race contender for trainer Conor O’Dwyer, who failed to win the National during the course of his illustrious riding career.
Ante-post favourite Rich Revival’s claims are rock solid while Jim Dreaper’s hunter, Goonyella, is an intriguing prospect for a trainer who has won the National four times, and whose legendary father Tom remains the record-holder with 10.
"We're throwing him in at the deep end a bit but we're going to give it a go," said Dreaper whose name is synonymous with the race.
Arkle and Flyingbolt, steeplechasing’s top-rated performers in history, were part of Tom Dreaper’s historic 10, and in a different galaxy to the level of quality among today’s starters which have the English hope Junior on top of the weights.
The odds of a 33 to 1 turn-up like Lion Na Bearnai last year are hardly going to be huge, unlike JP McManus's first Irish National winner, Bit Of A Skite, who was a well-supported 7 to 1 shot all of 30 years ago.
Slippers Madden wasn't even born then, and Carlingford Lough may not wind up a 7 to 1 fancy. But together, they could be the value option to a hugely trappy feature.