Long Run has the class to cope with Grand National challenge

Our Father started favourite for the Hennessy and could go well at a big price

It’s almost 40 years since a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner won the Grand National and it is a very different Grand National now to when L’Escargot famously beat Red Rum in 1975. Just how different it is could be confirmed if Long Run lands the first £1 million Aintree spectacular this afternoon.

That the National doesn't present the challenge of old is indicated even by Long Run's appearance in the line-up. The horse that beat Denman and Kauto Star in the 2011 Gold Cup has failed to finish only one of his 30 career starts but that "UR" in the King George at Christmas doesn't tell the full story.

Attractive alternatives
Even at his peak, Long Run's jumping never fully convinced – spectacular when meeting a fence right, sometimes cumbersome and awkward when not. Mistakes have been plentiful; in short, he's the sort of prospective mount that would have had even the most cavalier of old-time jockeys suddenly finding more attractive alternatives if presented with Long Run as a mount for a more traditional National challenge.

Even with the modifications to the drops at the landing side of the fences, Long Run would still have had many of the modern riders wary of teaming up with such a comparatively ‘hit-and-miss’ jumper.

But the decision last year to change the core of the famous fences, making them more flexible and forgiving of jumping errors which in the past would have put horses on the floor, had an immediate impact.


Just two horses fell in last year’s National. Half a dozen unseated.

The reality that the National now attracts attention for more than just competitive reasons was reflected in 13 horses being pulled up with jockeys aware of the wider welfare picture in which the National operates.

That Auroras Encore still provided a 66-1 'lottery' result put the seal on a perfect controversy-free outcome for the authorities, but it was also confirmation that the National is a very different beast now.

Inherently challenging
Of course different doesn't mean the same thing as wrong, and a race as inherently challenging as the four-and-a-half miles and 30 fences of Aintree has the armoury to throw presumption back in your face.

But there are some things that can be taken as read.

The presence of Tidal Bay and Long Run at the top of the handicap, and given notably lenient ratings to facilitate them too, certainly indicates a better quality of horse taking part. The days of slow plodders hunting their way round look to be over, and with faster horses comes greater risk.

It’s the speed fences are taken at which is usually the danger, not their size. But that’s a risk that looks to be diluted by easier fences, or at least fences that produce a different sort of error.

Since unseating the rider now appears to be the most common National exit, the fact that Long Run lost his jockey Sam Waley-Cohen in the King George is an obvious worry.

But the amateur rider has already proven himself a formidable talent at negotiating the National fences, added to which he has the priceless confidence of knowing he is on the class horse in the race.

Long Run has been given a rating over a stone and a half lower than his career peak. He’s not as good as he was, but he surely hasn’t regressed that much.

This time last year he was third in the Gold Cup and narrowly beaten at Punchestown. With even a merely competent round of jumping, and the requisite luck in running, he has to play a major role.

Long Run's opposition will include ten Irish hopefuls bidding to become the first to score since Silver Birch became the sixth winner trained in Ireland in a glorious nine-year period in 2007.

Proven route
They include the Willie Mullins duo Prince de Beauchene and Vesper Bell while Tony McCoy has chosen Double Seven over Colbert Station from JP McManus's team.

The 2012 Irish Grand National winner Lion Na Bearnai will attempt to give Davy Russell a Gold Cup-Grand National double last brought off by Lord Windermere's trainer Jim Culloty in 2002.

And the Irish National is a proven route to Aintree glory.

Our Father started favourite for the Hennessy and could go well at a big price while the better the ground, the better Baltahazar King's shot as Richard Johnson chases a first National success.

But the modern-day Aintree 2014 can see Long Run pull off his own Gold Cup-National double, nine years to the day after he was foaled.

The demands of the course may have changed but whatever way it looks, the National is still some birthday present.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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