Mahler Mission can emerge on top in very contemporary Grand National

Record 26 Irish-trained horses in reduced maximum field of 34 runners

It is the oldest jewel in jump racing’s crown but Saturday’s Aintree Grand National is a very contemporary illustration of the modern sport.

Continuing efforts to improve horse safety in the world’s most famous steeplechase means a cut in the maximum field size to 34 runners although numerical Irish dominance is still reflected in a record-equalling 26 runners from this country.

Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott have eight each, equivalent to the entire home team. JP McManus has a handful of runners carrying his silks as he bids for a third win. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has four chances to get a fourth.

It is the sort of scenario that led the British Horseracing Authority to put out feelers during the winter about limiting the numbers any individual might be allowed run in top handicaps like the National. That it quickly got shot out of the water, as were ludicrous “stop the boats” type suggestions by the 2014 Grand National winning trainer Dr Richard Newland after more Irish superiority at Cheltenham last month, will hardly prevent resentment festering at the current reality in some quarters.


That is despite Scotland’s very own Braveheart, Corach Rambler, who repelled the Irish hordes a year ago, once again leading the home defence. He will try to become just the eighth dual-National winner. Trainer Lucinda Russell and Sligo-born jockey Derek Fox were also successful in 2017 with One For Arthur.

Wales’s Kitty’s Light is also in the mix for Christian Williams whose priorities are far removed from flag-waving due to the brave battle being fought against serious illness by the trainer’s seven-year-old daughter Betsy.

Nevertheless, the modern reality of a concentration of resources in a few elite hands in Ireland is stamped all over this National.

If there is a temptation to dismiss some of the Elliott octet as being in the no-hoper camp, there is still an Aintree tradition of longshots coming in, most recently Noble Yeats who will carry top weight this time as he tries to repeat his 2022 success at 50-1.

Such is Willie Mullins’s overarching sway, however, only the foolish will bin the chances of any of his runners.

That supremacy was underlined once again with nine winners at Cheltenham, equaling the entire British tally on his own. Should he pick up the National’s £500,000 winning pot it will put him in the driving seat for a first trainer’s title in Britain when the season ends there later this month.

If it proves to be I Am Maximus that does the business for Mullins, then in his unassuming way Paul Townend will have secured himself a singular piece of history.

Over the years, some of the sport’s most high-profile riders have pulled off jump racing’s unofficial Triple Crown and won the National on top of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle during their careers.

On the back of Galopin Des Champs and State Man landing the two major prizes at Cheltenham, Townend has a shot at pulling off the feat in a single season. His 13th ride in the race might prove very lucky indeed.

Only for overlooking Minella Indo in the Gold Cup, Rachael Blackmore could have beaten Townend to the punch in 2021. Blackmore’s success on Minella Times is one of the modern-day National’s most vivid results and this time she teams up with Indo who is part of a Henry De Bromhead trio.

Golden Miller famously pulled off the Gold Cup-Grand National double 90 years ago while L’Escargot is the only other horse to win both, although he waited three years after the second of his Cheltenham victories to beat Red Rum in 1975.

At 11, Minella Indo is at the veteran stage and the trend has been towards younger horses thriving around the National’s modern challenge. The last eight winners have been under the age of 10. That doesn’t advertise claims for Elliott’s apparent number-one hope, Delta Work, while Roi Mage is one of a pair of 12-year-olds.

Meetingofthewaters and Limerick Lace are two other prime JP McManus hopes while the latter’s trainer Gavin Cromwell has another big shout with last year’s runner-up Vanillier. Cromwell’s cross-channel strike rate, underlined by Limerick Lace’s full brother Inothewayurthinkin winning at Grade One level on Friday, means both will be popular.

Martin Brassil is already a National winner through Numbersixvalverde in 2006 and has recently bucked trends by competing against the big boys with his relatively small Curragh string. Drying ground at Aintree will help the chances of his lightly weighted hope, Panda Boy.

However, the fact the National is no longer as unique a test as it once was, could help the chances of a horse who looks to tick most of the boxes necessary to seriously compete around Aintree.

This will be just Mahler Mission’s eighth start over fences and the last of them was a fine runner-up spot in Newbury’s Coral Cup where the suspicion he might be a Grade One horse in waiting was boosted by how he performed despite losing both front shoes during the race. He is ground versatile, stays well, and has a progressive profile that suggests he may still be ahead of the handicapper.

Mahler Mission is a first National runner for Co. Meath trainer John McConnell, and for jockey Ben Harvey, so isn’t from one of the behemoth operations. But if the experience box isn’t ticked, he still looks a reasonable bet to be a fifth Irish winner of the National in six renewals.

Prediction: 1. Mahler Mission. 2. Panda Boy 3. Capodanno 4. Kitty’s Light

Five stories to follow

Feelgood Factor: Even the most hard-bitten won’t appreciate victory for KITTY’S LIGHT. Welsh trainer Christian Williams has endured a torrid time since his seven-year-old daughter Betsy was diagnosed with leukaemia just over a year ago. Gruelling treatment means there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but Betsy still has to take a chemotherapy pill every day for the next two years. No horse trained in Wales has won the National since Kirkland in 1905, and no one could begrudge an end to that long wait.

Will He/Won’t He: A standing start has been introduced this year. It might prevent a false start, but it gives MR INCREDIBLE a chance to indulge his more maverick habits should his momentum be stalled. He once refused point blank to start a race and pulled himself up in another one. The Willie Mullins runner has been better behaved recently but is still plenty quirky enough to decide all this isn’t for him.

John Wayne Rides Again: Millionaire businessman and amateur jockey David Maxwell has a riding style rather more cowboy than Frankie Dettori. The 45-year-old has purchased AIN’T THAT A SHAME to ride in the National for the first time. The horse won the Thyestes at Gowran in January under Rachael Blackmore. After Maxwell’s purchase, the horse’s National odds went out to 50-1 but it is the sporting owner’s lifetime ambition to ride in the race.

Limerick, You’re A Lady: Limerick’s most famous son, JP McManus, has a handful of hopefuls as he tries to win the National for a third time. But the famously secretive owner broke the habits of a lifetime by revealing he has backed LIMERICK LACE at 25-1. Since his other hopefuls I Am Maximus and Meetingofthewaters are among the favourites, plenty took the tip and the mare’s price has halved. She would be the first mare in 73 years to win.

Movie Plot: LATENIGHTPASS represents point-to-point trainer Tom Ellis, who took out a licence to train the horse for Aintree. He is owned by Ellis’s mother and will be ridden by his wife, Gina Andrews. The partnership won the Foxhunters over the National fences a year ago. There have been more unlikely winners, and maybe more unlikely movie scripts too.