Topweight Tidal Bay is the headline act among the ‘senior citizens’ for Saturday’s Crabbies Grand National but Co Meath trainer Tom Gibney is hopeful his own hardy veteran, Lion Na Bearnai, can once again beat the odds in the world’s most famous steeplechase.
At 12 years of age, Lion Na Bearnai is the second-oldest horse among the top 40 horses left in the National – bowing only to the year older Tidal Bay - but he brings a tried-and-trusted big-race pedigree to the ultimate jumping challenge.
Gibney’s stable star famously defied 33/1 odds to win the 2012 Irish National at Fairyhouse, a race won by Bobbyjo, Numbersixvalverde and Rhyme N’Reason before they proceeded to subsequent Aintree glory.
Lion Na Bearnai will have the services of Gold Cup-winning rider Davy Russell on Saturday as he bids to become the first 12-year-old in a decade to the Liverpool spectacular. He is a general 40/1 with bookmakers but the horse has a history of big-priced success. Prior to the Irish National Lion Na Bearnai landed the Grade Two Ten Up Novice Chase at 50/1.
“I would say his ideal going is wet loose ground but he handles anything really and we’re all set for Saturday,” said Gibney yesterday. The 41-year-old trains a string of just 10 horses at his base near Kells in Co Meath.
A total of 10 Irish-trained hopes remain in the top 40 horses left in the National after yesterday's five-day stage. Sixty five entries remain in total and Jim Dreaper faces an anxious wait as Goonyella is at number 41. Reserves will be included at declaration and have until 9am on Friday to get into the race proper. It is seven years since the last Irish-trained winner, Silver Birch, who completed this country's most successful ever period in the National with half a dozen winners in just nine renewals.
Bookmakers reckon Willie Mullins – a National winner with Hedgehunter in 2005 – has the best chance of Irish success this time with Prince De Beauchene who is as low as 16/1. Martin Brassil – a winner with Numbersixvalverde in 2006 – has left in Double Seven who is as low as 20/1.
"They are two very different horses but the race is very different nowadays. It isn't the same jumping test it was and you need that bit more speed to keep yourself in the race," Brassil reported. "You are getting classier animals having a go as there isn't the same risk attached to the race as there was in the past. Double Seven is a good horse but everyone knows winning the National is like winning the lottery."
Last year's third, Teaforthree, is a general favourite and gets 12lb from Tidal Bay, who will attempt to become the first topweight to win at Aintree since Red Rum in 1974.
The highest-rated Irish entry is the former Grade One winner Quito De La Roque but despite having to carry 11st 1lb, trainer Colm Murphy is hopeful of a big show from the Gigginstown Stud-owned star.
“He’s going along nicely at home. He’s had his problems over the years but he’s a tough horse which is obviously important in the National,” Murphy said yesterday. “We’re very happy with him and his preparation has gone well.”
Quito De La Roque has Liverpool form from 2011 when landing a Grade Two over the Mildmay course while Prince De Beauchene also won over the smaller fences at Aintree that year.
Big Shu’s biggest moment came when winning the cross-country at Cheltenham last year but trainer Peter Maher believes his stable star can secure an even bigger pot on Saturday despite Big Shu having had to settle for second on his return to the festival last month. “He came out grand. Good ground is not his business and it was a better race this year. He’s always best on his third run. I think he was short at Cheltenham. He’d been sick a month before,” Maher said.
“Cheltenham was a remarkable run for everything to go against him. The ground went against him, things didn’t go right and Balthazar King is a good horse around Cheltenham. I was just so pleased to get him back in one piece after what happened during the week to the horses and jockeys that got hurt,” he added.
Ground conditions on the National course yesterday were good to soft with some rain forecast for the first half of this week.