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Farewell Rajdhani Express

REI don’t blog often these days, but couldn’t let the passing of my old favourite, Rajdhani Express go unmarked. He suffered a fatal injury today after jumping the eleventh fence in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree, the scene of his greatest victory just over 6 months ago, when he won the Topham over the Grand National fences.

The bonny looking brown gelding first caught my eye when he won the novices’ handicap chase at the festival in 2013. I’ve followed him since through thick and (mostly) thin. I was convinced for some time he had a Ryanair in him, and backed him at fat prices for the 2014 running, where he finished 3rd, beaten just under 5 lengths by Dynaste. I backed him again ante-post (and tipped him numerous times here and on Twitter) for the 2015 running, but he had an unusual season, and it became apparent halfway through that connections would go down the handicap route.

Every time he ran he carried my cash, and I was as frustrated for the horse as I was for myself that his luck never seemed in. He unseated in the Old Roan on his seasonal debut, then raced so keenly at Ascot he exhausted himself by two out. He was keen again next time in the Peterborough Chase, and finished lame. He showed much more of his talent next time at Kempton in his first attempt at three miles, when a first-time hood helped him settle much better. But the ground was awful that day, and he faded badly in the closing stages. Still, he seemed to be coming right for Cheltenham, and I backed  him ante-post for The Festival Plate.

But he was luckless again there, meeting some trouble in running at a vital point and finding himself shuffled back through the pack to a very difficult pitch. Sam Waley-Cohen wisely accepted things as soon as it happened and let him come home in his own time. He finished full of running in 8th, beaten under 8 lengths. I’d said here before this race that Cheltenham was his last chance saloon, but I remained convinced that all he needed was a change of luck.

So out came the wallet and back in I went at 14s for The Topham. He’d started the season on a mark of 158 and raced at Aintree off 152. His claiming rider, Sam Waley-Cohen, son of the owner, Robert, has one of the best records over the big fences of any jockey, pro or amateur, and I think he could easily hold his own as a professional. He’s the only amateur ever to win a King George VI Chase (twice on Long Run). And he’s the only amateur in the past 30 years to win a Cheltenham Gold Cup (Long Run).

Watching him ride that Topham showed just why he’s so successful over the National fences. Rather than holding a line on the inside or outside, his aim always was to stay safe, and he’d weave around to wherever he felt in least danger of being brought down (he avoided a five-horse melee at the Canal Turn). It was plain a long way out that the fine-jumping gelding wouldn’t be beaten, and, aside from winning back everything times ten I’d bet on him, I was  delighted that it had all finally come together for the horse and his connections.

At 14s he was also the first leg of a £10 double for me, which I’d placed on both my biggest Festival disappointments, ‘just in case’ (regular punters will know the philosophy well). The second leg, at 28/1, was Many Clouds for the National. Forgive the after-timing, but it helps demonstrate just why I was so fond of this horse.

Rajdhani Express raced 27 times (including today). His first official rating was 135. He started today off 160, his highest ever rating. You’ll know by now that I believe he should have won more than 6 times (2 hurdles. 4 Chases). Still just 8, he’d have carried my cash again for the Festival and Aintree this season, because all I ever thought he needed was a bit of good luck. Today he had the worst. I’ll miss him.

Joe

 

 

The mystery of the 2014 Gold Cup result

gc finishI see the Gold Cup is being written off in some quarters as a very poor one because of the result. I’m not having that. You don’t go into a championship race with two horses around 180 – trained to the minute – and come out of it with a field full of 160ish horses – it just doesn’t happen imo.

The rails were moved yesterday morning “between 7 and 11 yards on the inside of the ‘chase course” (Simon Claisse), offering a strip of ground that had not been raced on for a year. Given that the year also saw an unprecedented amount of water falling on it, and that most of the field raced on that strip for most of the race – except the finish where the first three came up on older ground – could that have something to do with the result?

The going announced was for the whole track – I wonder if Mr Claisse used his stick on that fresh strip? I’d be very interested to see a stick reading from it.

An unusual pace can, of course, throw up a strange result. But Geraghty reported that he thought they were going a stride to fast for BW throughout; the winner could not go the pace at all until turning in for the last time. And yet the time was nothing special. The Gold Cup was run less than seven seconds faster than The Foxhunters, run 40 minutes or so after the big race.

Yesterday was Lord Windermere’s first win on ground without soft in the official description (Timeform gave it as Good, Good to Soft in places). Bobs Worth’s connections have always insisted he is a better horse on decent ground – there’s insufficient evidence in the formbook to form a solid objective assessment of that claim.

Anyway, it’s nothing more than a theory on what was a very strange day at Cheltenham, all in all. Bobs Worth’s poor run at Haydock and the general form of the Henderson yard could also be seen as casting some doubt on his running. But I’m not having it that Silv Conti didn’t get the trip after bottomless stamina won him the King George. That race, of course, might have left a mark on him, so the front two could conceivably have run well below form. Whatever happened, seven minutes didn’t turn two horses with a ratings advantage of between 16/19lbs and 25/28lbs into a pair of donkeys.

Imperial Commander out for the season

Head of the Our Friends In The North syndicate, Ian Robinson, has revealed that Imperial Commander, the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup Winner will not run this season.

The 10-y-o gelding developed a tendon problem in a front leg, which will keep him out for up to a year.

Mr Robinson said “We found a bit of heat in one of his legs after exercise earlier this week. Whilst it was cold within 48 hours we ran a precautionary scan which showed a 12% tear in the tendon. I had a great day in his company on Tuesday when we carried out the scan, he is a very happy horse in good order with himself.

The damage will repair itself with plenty of walking, and as he always enjoys his time at Mounttop Stud in Ireland so this will be a well deserved extended holiday. We will wait until the end of next summer and he can tell us what he wants to do next if anything”.

Backhand position only for whip most likely outcome of BHA review says David Muir, RSPCA consultant

David Muir, the RSPCA consultant who works closely with racing on behalf of the charity, has been in the news lately.  David very kindly gave me twenty minutes of his time yesterday to record the following interview. 

“Recent media coverage seems to have given the impression that excessive whip use has suddenly become an issue because of the Grand National and Jason Maguire’s suspension.  The fact is the RSPCA and myself have been concerned about incorrect use of the whip in racing for a long time, and I have done a lot of work on the issue with a number of people.

“Although the RSPCA have always taken a pragmatic view on the whip, and indeed on racing, things are now getting out of hand.  Unless something is done about excessive use of the whip, I can see it being banned completely and that is something I don’t want to see.  The whip is needed for safety and discipline in races but how do you quantify encouragement?  That’s the area that needs addressing.

“I’ve read Mark Johnston’s piece where he says that horses need to feel the whip as they tire towards the finish, for their own safety, to keep them running straight in a balanced fashion.  To a degree Mark has a point but what you can’t do is defend the indefensible.  If the application of pain is a necessary ingredient for racing, then I see racing going into an area that’s problematic.

“The whip is a work in progress.  The one used now in racing bears no comparison whatever to the whip used five years ago. If I’d have hit myself hard on the back of the hand with a whip from five years ago, I’d break all four fingers.  I could do it with the current whip and not even leave a mark.

“The current whip has a cylindrical core covered with foam.  As it tapers down to the part which strikes the horse, it flattens out into a foam covered paddle which gives on contact with the horse and the reduction in pain, compared with the old whip, is dramatic.

“Used in the backhand style, the whip is perfectly acceptable, it’s when jockeys change to the forehand there is an implication that they want to apply as much pain as possible, and that’s where I fall out.

“We need to make sure that the correct balance is reached in whip design and in its use by jockeys. Doubling the foam-covering for example would make the whip useless for correction and discipline purposes.  But used in the backhand position, I can never see a point in the future where I, or the RSPCA, would have a problem with the whip and that is the way I think the BHA will go with this.

“The only alternative I can see to that is that the whip is to be carried for safety and correction only, as in the current hands and heels races.

“The whole point of me, and the RSPCA working side by side with racing is to try to help understand both sides of the issues as we work to improve the welfare of horses.  It’s alright standing outside and criticising racing but when you are working with racecourse management and the BHA, as we do, you see the problems they face.

“For example, I’m working closely at the moment on a hurdle design project with students at Southampton University, which is due to finish next month.  For a year we’ve been looking at hurdle design. Along with four graduates, we’ve been examining design to see if we can improve safety in hurdling and reduce fatalities.  I’m not in racing simply to criticise, I’m there to work with those involved to try to improve things”.

On the question of disqualification of a horse if its jockey is found guilty of improper use of the whip, David said:

“The Jockey should be disqualified, not the horse. Disqualifying the horse affects many other people; owners, trainers, punters, the whole system of betting.  Just imagine a jockey who wants to actually lose a race, he knows excessive use will get the horse disqualified”.

I asked David if he was involved in the decision to ask jockeys to dismount immediately after the Grand National.  He said:

“This is another issue that’s been taken completely out of context. I’ve been involved with the National now for fourteen years.  When I first went there I fought like billy-o to get loads of water and I’ve got it now, about a hundred buckets and big tanks full of water with ice-bags in them.

“When the horses come in after four and a half miles, they’re very hot.  Tim Morris (equine science and welfare director for the BHA) gave an instruction this year to jockeys to get off as soon they got in, get the saddles off and get water on the horses to cool them down. It wasn’t just the winner that got the treatment, I must have thrown water over twenty or thirty horses.  It’s a welfare issue and a good thing for racing to do”.

Asked about the image the hurried scrambling with water gave to the public, David said, “I think there was a major PA problem there.  They should have explained what was going on.  It’s a bit like when the screens go up on the course; everybody just assumes it’s a dead horse but that’s not always the case.

“Racing needs to take another step forward in explaining things.  The whip is a classic example.  Most people don’t know about the structure of a whip and how it behaves in use.  We need to be more open and help people understand things much better”.

We touched on the situation in Australia where the RSPCA were instrumental in getting NH racing  banned in all but two states.  David made the point that there’s almost no resemblance to jump racing there and in the UK, in the quality and type of horses used.  He said:

“I can never see a situation where the RSPCA would support a call for the banning of National Hunt racing in Britain. Remember, what we are about is the prevention of cruelty and the definition of cruelty is ‘the gratuitous application of pain for the enjoyment of the person who’s doing it’. Now where in racing does the term ‘cruel’ fit?  Tragic?  Yes. Cruel? I can’t see that. The RSPCA does not try to justify the deaths of racehorses, but we will work tirelessly to reduce them. It’s a high risk sport and the RSPCA’s position in it is to help make it as risk-free as possible”.

On Towcester’s decision to have only ‘hands and heels’ races from October 5th onwards David said, “It’s a brave and positive way forward and I congratulate them on their courage and tenacity in the face of these recent concerns about whip use”.

Tidal Bay might try his luck in Coral Scottish Grand National on Saturday

A week after lining up in the John Smith’s Grand National, Howard Johnson is tempted to send Tidal Bay to Ayr on Saturday for the Scottish equivalent.

It was little surprise to many that the 10-year-old unshipped Brian Hughes at Aintree. Tidal Bay’s renowned for sloppy jumping over fences, yet Saturday was the first time in his 30-race career he has failed to finish. Bar one 7th and one 5th, the horse has never been out of the first four.

“I don’t know what to do with him at the moment, but he didn’t really have a race at Aintree,” said Johnson.

“He only got as far as the 10th and he was just lobbing along on the inside when he got rid of Brian .

“The horse has come back and has been in the field ever since. He’s bucking, kicking and squealing.

“He’s eating up well and kicking sky-high when other horses are going past. He’s very well.

“He doesn’t over-exert himself and he’s had an easy season. He’s been geared up for the Grand National and it went wrong on me.

“He’s a 10-year-old now and where can he go now? I might be tempted to run him on Saturday.”

Grand National deaths: racing’s PR veteran Rob Hartnett says racing is in the dock and the jury is not on our side

I invited a few ‘people who tweet’ to write guest articles on the Grand National debate.  A PR perspective from outside the industry, by Matt Taylor, was published yesterday.  Today, racing’s PR veteran, the much respected Rob Hartnett adds his point of view. Rob runs his own PR Consultancy in Dublin advising clients in betting and gaming, sport, the trade union sector, arts, education and new technology.  He was former PR and Sponsorship Director at the Tote and Managing Director at BETDAQ Racing.

Horseracing in the dock at the court of public opinion

The debate on the Grand National has brought to the fore a stark moral hazard which many in racing have always lived with but which poses a serious threat to the long term future of the race and the sport.

In Britain to a much greater extent than Ireland or most other countries, the debate around animal welfare owes a great deal to anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics to horses in particular.  Owing in part to Mr Ed, Black Beauty or Champion the wonder horse, we who enjoy the sport do so because we fall victim in our hearts to the noble charm, bravery and courage of our favourite horses.

Whether it is Denman, Dawn Run or in my case, Buck House from the mid 1980’s, and Florida Pearl from a more recent decade, our heroic horses beguile and enchant us.  Seeing the last named in happy retirement at the National Stud makes me feel good about the care and attention lavished on those who race for our pleasure.

Do they race for their pleasure though, or are we asking them quite literally to race for their lives?  I am troubled over the way events have unfolded in the past 48 hours. To the general public, the sport of horse racing looks one in which animals are bred in  order to provide betting opportunities and forced to race over fences that expose them to far too great a risk.

The Grand National is the one day of the year that racing overcomes this and holds the nation’s attention.  Crowds flock to Aintree to eat, drink, be merry, drink a bit more, and be entertained.  Millions of workers, families, painters, plumbers, priests and pole dancers cut up their pieces of paper or shake their iPhones to generate a sweepstake that will give them the thrill of dipping a toe into the murky world of villains, vagabonds and bookies that they perceive racing to be and would normally shy away from in trepidation.

Of course the perception is wrong but Dick Francis has a lot more readers than Timeform and public perception is a powerful force.

The Grand National overcomes the general antipathy towards racing.  How many of today’s betting public and racing folk can date their love affair with the sport to the days of Red Rum and other heroes of the Grand National?  Without it the opportunity to thrill new followers will be lost.  That is why it is so important to heed what is being said.

Ten years ago public opinion was shaped by newspaper editors and broadcasting executives.  Today they still prime the national debate but now through new social media, they no longer control it.  If I was working for animal rights activists I would see the last two days as the beginning of my greatest opportunity to end once and for all the sport of racing, at least over fences.  Many have said that racing should sit tight and wait for the storm to blow over.  But this year’s race has left a stain, and to bundle it away without addressing the issues is to store up greater trouble in future.

On Saturday afternoon two horses died.  A young Jockey suffered a brain injury the extent of which is yet unknown but who has been shockingly overlooked as animal rights forced its way into the hearts and minds of a good proportion of the general public.

The most damaging aspect was that they died on the racecourse and for reasons of safety, forced two fences to be bypassed.  That the BBC chose to show a high level shot which forced their broken bodies centre stage is perhaps why their passing, more than any other equine deaths in recent years, is of such importance.

The general public will sanction wrongdoing by turning away when they don’t have to face it.  On Saturday, and just in case they missed it, in the ‘highlights’ programme in the small hours of Sunday morning, it could not be avoided.

Hence the debate from back pages to breakfast shows, Jeremy Vine and the One Show sofa.  All of it conducted by animal rights activists on one side, who knew exactly which strings to pull to win public empathy, and racing experts on the other who spoke of ‘acceptable risk’ and the notion that the horses have a good time and really enjoy their racing.  It was a one sided affair.

My children watched the race.  They cheered the winner and asked why the horses had to miss the fences.  I told them the horses were dead.  They asked did that happen often and I said no, that the horses were very well looked after from when they were born to when they retired and that as herd animals they naturally ran and jumped in the wild so racing was in their nature.  They were not sure.  They asked if a horse did not want to jump those big fences could they say no.  Sometimes it is from the mouths of children that we can glean the clearest picture of what the outside world thinks.

They were right to point out that these horses did not have a choice.

That argument is twisted though in suggesting people matter less because they can choose.  That is a cheap shot which should be knocked back by those who argue racing’s case.  All of us have crosses to bear in life.  We overcome hardships, setbacks and illness, knowing we will die in the end but content to soldier on because life itself is what makes it all worthwhile.

So it is with horses, most if not all of whom would never have lived were it not for racing.  The lives of countless thousands of horses have been enhanced by welfare programmes created out of a desire to breed sturdy animals.  Those who care for horses generally do so with genuine love and affection for them.

But this is immaterial in the court of public opinion and that is where racing will need soon and more frequently to present a cogent case for its continuance.  On Monday evening the British Horseracing Authority issued a robust defence of welfare provision in the sport and at the Grand National in particular.  It was strong but it was late.  It touched on the ethical question but did not address it.  That is the key issue for the future of racing.

To those who would argue that this will be quickly forgotten and the public interest will have moved on to talent shows and the Royal wedding within the beat of a butterfly’s wing, let me end on a medieval word of caution.

From the sixteenth century for three hundred years the sport of bear baiting was immensely popular throughout Britain.  Enjoying Royal patronage from Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I it attracted the masses until a point when the public conscience was ‘touched’ and the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835 was introduced, banning the practice which the public, through parliament had wearied of.

Steeplechasing as we know it, and after which of course this blog is named, is approximately 260 years old.

We know through the study of form that history teaches us much of what will happen in the future.  Racing should take heed and be prepared.

Backstage vying for favouritism in John Smith’s Grand National: extensive Factfile on horse and connections

BACKSTAGE (FR) FACTFILE

b g Passing Sale (FR) – Madame Nathalie (FR) (Dreams To Reality (USA))

9-10-12                                  Form: 0F3/64313/223/28/71123138UP-570 Owner: MPR & Capranny Syndicate

Trainer: Gordon Elliott IRE                Breeder: Ecurie Passing                  Jockey: Davy Condon

Backstage

Originally trained by Jehan Bertran de Balanda, Backstage failed to shine in five starts over hurdles in France and was third on his chasing debut at Clairefontaine in July, 2006. He was sent over to Britain shortly afterwards by then owner Sir Robert Ogden and made a winning start for trainer Evan Williams that October when easily accounting for his five rivals in a novices’ chase at Cheltenham.

He was tailed off on his next appearance in an Aintree novices’ chase the following month and missed the rest of the season. Sent over hurdles for the 2007/08 season, Backstage went down by a head in a handicap at Leicester but he once again failed to progress when beaten in novice hurdles at Warwick and Wincanton. His final appearance for Ogden and Williams came when second in a Utttoxeter novice hurdle in May, 2008.

He was sold for 13,000 guineas at Doncaster shortly afterwards. He made a winning debut for new connections, Irish-based trainer Gordon Elliott and a syndicate made up of his stable staff, easily landing a point-to-point at Castletown-Geoghegan in October, 2008. Backstage continued to thrive between the flags, winning three of his five subsequent starts, and he ran a fine race on his first attempt over the Grand National fences, coming home eighth in the John Smith’s Fox Hunter’s Chase at the 2009 John’s Smith’s Grand National Meeting.

After taking seventh in the Punchestown Champion Hunters Chase, Backstage scored impressively in a three-mile handicap chase on good to firm going at Perth at the end of May. He won and was second in novices’ hurdles at the Scottish course in July and was third in a Listed handicap chase at Market Rasen in August. He posted a superb victory in a valuable extended three-mile handicap chase at Ffos Las just six days later.

With all roads leading to the 2010 John Smith’s Grand National, Backstage did not make a racecourse appearance until February, when he took third in a novices’ hurdle at Musselburgh in the colours of Middleham Park Racing, who had purchased a 50 per cent share in the horse just before Christmas. He warmed up for Aintree by taking eighth in a two and a half mile Grade Three chase at Navan in March, but unseated at the 20th fence in the 2010 John Smith’s Grand National.

He disappointed in his next four starts under Rules between April and July and was then put away until reappearing with a 10-length victory in a Kirkistown point-to-point on February 12 and continued his low-key Aintree prep with a seven-length success in another point-to-point at The Pigeons on March 6.

Race Record (under Rules): Starts: 26; Wins: 4; 2nd: 4; 3rd: 6; Win & Place Prize Money: £77,169

Middleham Park Racing & Capranny Stable Staff Syndicate

Backstage will carry the colours of Middleham Park Racing in the John Smith’s Grand National after the syndicate bought a 50 per cent share in the horse from the Capranny Stable Staff Syndicate in a deal brokered by former jump jockey Tom Malone just before Christmas, 2009.

Middleham Park Racing (MPR) was set up in 1995, starting out with two syndicates, and has established itself as one of the main syndication companies in the UK, enjoying more than 300 winners. Notable horses to have carried the MPR silks to victory include prolific all-weather winner China Castle, Beverley Listed scorer Exceptional Art, Royal Ascot and Cheltenham Festival hero Junior, and Dhaular Dhar, who has made the frame in heritage handicaps at Ascot on five occasions.

The Capranny Stable Staff Syndicate is made up of employees from Gordon Elliott’s Capranny Stables in Co Meath, Ireland, including all of Backstage’s work riders, travelling head lads Sarah Parsons and Jordan ‘Sparky’ Chalmers, vet Eduardo Martinez, chief yardman Jimmy Smith and head lad Simon McGonagle, who partnered Backstage to four of his point-to-point victories.

Each member put in 100 euros to purchase Backstage and the horse has more than repaid his supporters with nine  victories between the flags and under Rules, including when netting £31,310 for winning the inaugural Freebets.co.uk Handicap Chase at Ffos Las in August, 2009.

John Smith’s Grand National record: 2010 Backstage (UR 20th)

Gordon Elliott IRE

Born on March 2, 1978, in Summerhill, Co Meath, Gordon Elliott was a very successful point-to-point rider, who also partnered winners under Rules. He started his racing career while still at school, working at Tony Martin’s stable in County Meath, Ireland. From there, he moved to Britain, joining Martin Pipe’s in 2002, and during his spell in Somerset his six rides as an amateur included one winner. Elliott then returned to Ireland for another term at Martin’s stables.

In 2004, Barry Callaghan, head of the Dun Doire syndicate, bought Capranny Stables at Trim in County Meath. When Elliott started his training career, early in 2006, those stables became his base. Elliott’s first runner under Rules came at the 2006 Cheltenham Festival, when Brandon Mountain was pulled up in the Fred Winter Juvenile Novices’ Handicap Hurdle.

He continued to send runners over to the UK and enjoyed almost instant success, most notably with Arresting, who notched up four victories between May and July, 2006. Elliott’s John Smith’s Grand National victory with Silver Birch in 2007 was remarkable not only because he was only 29 at the time, but also because he had yet to saddle a winner in his native country. The winners in Ireland soon followed and Elliott enjoyed big-race success with the former Epsom Derby fifth Salford City, who won the Grade Two Tipperary Hurdle in October, 2007, while he also continued to send horses to the UK.

He soon gained a reputation as a shrewd judge of horses. Elliott is particularly fond of having runners at Perth and has sent out 54 winners (up to March 16th) at the Scottish venue. Further afield, Elliott saddled Salford City to finish third in a Grade Two chase at Saratoga, USA, in August, 2008, and the gelding also contested the Grade One New York Turf Writers Cup Chase at the same course three weeks later.

Last season’s leading performers included juvenile hurdler Carlito Brigante, who recorded a Grade Two victory at Leopardstown and was fourth in the JCB Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 2010. Elliott’s first Cheltenham Festival success came with Chicago Grey in this year’s National Hunt Chase, while Jessie’s Dream, winner of the Grade One Drinmore Novice Chase, was runner-up in the Grade One RSA Chase a little over an hour later. His second Festival win came on the same day with Carlito Brigante in the Coral Cup. The trainer has also enjoyed major Flat success with Dirar in the 2010 Ebor at York.

John Smith’s Grand National Record: 2007 SILVER BIRCH (WON); 2009 Silver Birch (Fell 22nd); 2010 Backstage (UR 20th)

Davy Condon

Davy Condon, whose father Mick was a leading amateur and point-to-point rider, was born on December 3, 1984. He started his career in 2000 as a 15-year-old apprentice Flat jockey with Willie Mullins, had his first winner the next season and ended that year with five successes from 95 rides.

In the next three seasons, he took his win tally up to 75 (it has since gone into three figures) and his most notable association was with the Mullins-trained Holy Orders, whom he rode in 30 races across both codes, including when well beaten in the 2003 Melbourne Cup. As Condon’s weight increased, he looked to the National Hunt world and rode his first winner over hurdles in November, 2004.

He had his first, and so far only, Cheltenham Festival success aboard Ebaziyan in the 2007 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the following year moved from Ireland to become stable jockey to Nicky Richards’ Cumbrian yard following Tony Dobbin’s retirement, winning the 2008 Peterborough Chase on Monet’s Garden and 2009 Scottish Champion Hurdle on Noble Alan.

He returned home for the 2009/10 season and rode mainly for Noel Meade, striking up a good rapport with Go Native on whom he won the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle and the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton although he missed out on his share of a potential £1 million bonus when the horse was beaten in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

He also won two Grade One novice chases in December, 2009 aboard the Meade-trained Pandorama, while the Michael Smith-trained Orsippus gave him a further top level victory in the Matalan 4-Y-O Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree’s 2010 John Smith’s Grand National meeting.

This season, he rode Realt Dubh and Fully Funded to Grade Two successes and partnered Benefit Night to win the Leinster National on March 6. Condon is a cousin of fellow rider Paul Townend. John Smith’s Grand National Record: 2007 Homer Wells (PU 22nd), 2010 Backstage (UR 20th)

John Smith’s Grand National: Lovetheraces offers a quick, easy-to-read preview of every runner

The racing industry’s excellent Lovetheraces site has a good at-a-glance summary of each runner in Saturdays’ big race.

You can find the preview here.

If you want a more in-depth look at four key contenders, Don’t Push It, What a Friend, Silver by Nature and The Midnight Club, you’ll find it here.

John Smith’s Grand National: summary of key horses left in

DON’T PUSH IT HEADS 65 AIMING FOR JOHN SMITH’S GRAND NATIONAL GLORY

Don’t Push It, who famously gave owner J P McManus, trainer Jonjo O’Neill and jockey Tony (A P) McCoy a first victory in the John Smith’s Grand National 12 months ago, heads the 65 contenders going forward at today’s five-day confirmation stage for the 2011 renewal of the world’s greatest chase at Aintree on Saturday, April 9.

This year’s race, run over four and a half miles and 30 fences, is due off at 4.15pm and boasts record prize money of £950,000.

There were no surprise withdrawals today and Don’t Push It continues to head the weights on 11st 10lb, meaning that any raising of the weights looks highly unlikely. The McManus/O’Neill combination could also be represented by Quolibet (10st 8lb) and Can’t Buy Time (10st 4lb).

The John Smith’s Grand National is the most obvious omission from the CV of champion trainer Paul Nicholls and the Somerset handler still has four to choose from headed by What A Friend (11st 6lb), who is part-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson and finished an excellent fourth in the totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup last time out. The Tother One (11st), 2009 Irish Grand National winner Niche Market (10st 13lb) and Ornais (10st 4lb) complete the Nicholls quartet.

Irish-trained horses have done spectacularly well in the John Smith’s Grand National in recent years, accounting for six of the 12 winners since 1999. A total of 20 Irish-trained horses remain engaged in this year’s contest including The Midnight Club(10st 13lb), the current 8/1 favourite with totesport, official betting partner of the 2011 John Smith’s Grand National meeting. The 10-year-old is trained by Willie Mullins, who sent out Hedgehunter to victory in 2005, and is the likely mount of Ruby Walsh, who is the winning-most current jockey in the John Smith’s Grand National following his two previous triumphs aboard Papillon (2000) and Hedgehunter (2005). Mullins could also be represented by Dooneys Gate (11st 4lb), ridden by the trainer’s amateur rider son Patrick, Arbor Supreme (10st 3lb), Our Monty (10st 3lb) and Pomme Tiepy (9st 9lb), though the last named is very unlikely to get a run as the maximum field is 40.

Other prominent Irish-trained contenders include Oscar Time (10st 9lb), who could give the Waley-Cohen family a dream double following Long Run’s totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup victory last month, the 2010 Irish Grand National heroine Bluesea Cracker (10st 4lb) and Becauseicouldntsee (10st 8lb), who is trained by his owner Noel Glynn with the assistance of Jason Titley, rider of 1995 National hero Royal Athlete. Gordon Elliott, handler of the 2007 winner Silver Birch, is set to be represented by Backstage (10st 12lb), who was going well when unseating his rider at the 20th fence last year and has won his latest two outings in point to points.

It is 32 years since a Scottish-trained horse won the Grand National (Rubstic, 1979) and 50 years since a grey was successful (Nicolaus Silver, 1961). A horse out to buck both these trends is the Lucinda Russell-trained Silver By Nature (10st 12lb), who warmed up for Aintree with success in the totesport.com Grand National Trial at Haydock Park on February 19.

McCain is a surname synonymous with the John Smith’s Grand National, with Ginger McCain having sent out the legendary Red Rum to three victories (1973, 1974 and 1977) and added a fourth with Amberleigh House (2004). His son Donald has a live contender this year with Ballabriggs (11st), winner of the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 2010 and runner-up to Skippers Brigg (10st 2lb) at Kelso last time out.

Nigel Twiston-Davies is the most successful current trainer in the John Smith’s Grand National, having sent out Earth Summit (1998) and Bindaree (2002) to success. In 2011, the Gloucestershire handler has a quartet to choose from including last year’s fifth Hello Bud (10st 5lb), who has already won over the National fences this season having taken the totesport.com Becher Chase in November. If successful, Hello Bud would be the first 13-year-old to prevail since Sergeant Murphy in 1923. Other runners from the Twiston-Davies yard could include Grand Slam Hero (10st 7lb), Roll Along (10st 7lb), who carries the colours of Bryan Burrough, owner of 1983 victor Corbiere, and Ballyfitz (9st 9lb).

Another previous winner among those going forward is Comply Or Die (10st 8lb), triumphant in 2008 for trainer David Pipe. Comply Or Die was also runner-up in 2009 and 12th in 2010.

A pair of John Smith’s Grand National regulars set to line up again on Saturday are State Of Play (10st 6lb), who finished fourth in 2009 and third in 2010 and Big Fella Thanks (11st 1lb), who was sixth in 2009 and fourth last year. Character Building (10st 4lb), seventh last year, is due to run again with amateur Nina Carberry booked to take the ride on the grey for the second year in succession.

The official elimination order, as decided Phil Smith, Head of Handicapping at the British Horseracing Authority, is as follows (maximum 40 runners)

39) ARBOR SUPREME,

40) OUR MONTY,

41) ROYAL ROSA,

42) SKIPPERS BRIG,

43) GOLDEN KITE,

44) ALWAYS WAINING,

45) PUTNEY BRIDGE,

46) BELON GALE,

47) FAASEL,

48) LE BEAU BAI,

49) MERIGO,

50) ASKTHEMASTER.

John Smith’s Grand National: full details, in racecard layout, of 5 day acceptors

THE 2011 JOHN SMITH’S GRAND NATIONAL

Class 1, Grade 3, £950,000 total Prize Fund. 4.15pm, Aintree, Saturday, April  9, 2011, four miles and four furlongs. For six-year-olds old and upwards which are allotted a rating of 110 or more by the BHA Head of Handicapping following a review of the horses entered and after taking account of races run up to and including February 13, 2011. Horses which are not qualified for a rating in Great Britain or Ireland at February 1, 2011, may also be entered. Such horses may be eligible for a weight providing the Handicapper is satisfied that the horse’s racecourse performances to February 13, 2011, would merit a minimum rating of 110. To qualify horses must have run at least three times in Steeple Chases run under the Rules of Racing of the same Recognised Turf Authority up to and including February 13, 2011. At the Handicapper’s discretion such horses may be allocated a rating. The decision of the BHA Head of Handicapping shall be final. No penalties after publication of the weights. Highest weight 11st 10lb. Entries closed February 1, entries revealed February 2 (102 entries, 3  subsequently scratched), weights revealed February 15, first scratchings deadline March 1 (82 remained), second scratchings deadline March 22 (74 remained). Five-day confirmation stage April 4 (65 five-day confirmations), final declaration stage 10.00am, April 7 – maximum field size of 40, plus 4 reserves. Form figures supplied by Weatherbys and are correct up to and including the racing of Sunday, April 3. WITH CORRECT NUMBERING & ORDER OF ELIMINATION

Form  Horse    Age/Wgt  Owner   Trainer/Probable Jockey

1) P1-P000 DON’T PUSH IT (IRE) 11-11-10  J P McManus  Jonjo O’Neill/Tony McCoy

2) 04-3226 TIDAL BAY (IRE) 10-11-09  Andrea & Graham Wylie Howard Johnson/Brian Hughes

3) 211-524 WHAT A FRIEND 8-11-06  Ged Mason & Sir Alex Ferguson Paul Nicholls/Daryl Jacob

4) 1B-0044 VIC VENTURI (IRE) 11-11-06  Seamus Dunne  Dessie Hughes IRE/Andrew Lynch

5) U62/1-31 MAJESTIC CONCORDE (IRE) 8-11-05  Dr Ronan Lambe Dermot Weld IRE/Robbie McNamara

6) 42F14 OR NOIR DE SOMOZA (FR) 9-11-05  Filsal Stadeg Racing David Pipe/Tom Scudamore

7) 1F24-41 DOONEYS GATE (IRE) 10-11-04  Jackie Mullins  Willie Mullins IRE/Mr Patrick Mullins

8 ) 14-2F44 BIG FELLA THANKS 9-11-01  Crossed Fingers Partnership Ferdy Murphy/Graham Lee

9) 205-244 THE TOTHER ONE (IRE) 10-11-00  Graham Roach  Paul Nicholls/Mr Ryan Mahon

10) 111-112 BALLABRIGGS (IRE) 10-11-00  Trevor Hemmings Donald McCain/Jason Maguire

11) 3133-21 THE MIDNIGHT CLUB (IRE) 10-10-13 Susannah Ricci  Willie Mullins IRE/Ruby Walsh

12) 20P-F50 NICHE MARKET (IRE) 10-10-13 Graham Regan  Paul Nicholls/Harry Skelton

13) 121-001 SILVER BY NATURE 9-10-12 Geoff Brown  Lucinda Russell/Peter Buchanan

14) 0BP-500 BACKSTAGE (FR) 9-10-12 MPR & Capranny Syndicate Gordon Elliott IRE/Paul Carberry

15) 11-053F  CHIEF DAN GEORGE (IRE) 11-10-12 Maurice Chapman Jimmy Moffatt/Paddy Aspell

16) 4-56242 CALGARY BAY (IRE) 8-10-10 Camilla Radford Henrietta Knight/Hadden Frost

17) 2P-2536 KILLYGLEN (IRE) 9-10-10 David McCammon Stuart Crawford IRE/Robert Power

18) 152-263 OSCAR TIME (IRE) 10-10-09 Robert Waley-Cohen/Sir Martin & S Broughton Martin Lynch IRE/ Mr Sam Waley-Cohen

19) 10-1131 QUINZ (FR) 7-10-08 Andrew Cohen  Philip Hobbs/Richard Johnson

20) 500423 NORTHERN ALLIANCE (IRE) 10-10-08 Irish Rover Syndicate Tony Martin IRE/Barry Geraghty

21) 2212-42 BECAUSEICOULDNTSEE (IRE) 8-10-08 Noel Glynn  Noel Glynn IRE/Davy Russell

22) 000-06P COMPLY OR DIE (IRE) 12-10-08 David Johnson  David Pipe/Timmy Murphy

23) F-FF25P QUOLIBET (FR) 7-10-08 J P McManus  Jonjo O’Neill/Mark Walsh

24) 1FP10P GRAND SLAM HERO (IRE) 10-10-07 Walters Plant Hire Ltd Nigel Twiston-Davies/Aidan Coleman

25) 6/454-P6  ROLL ALONG (IRE) 11-10-07 Bryan & Philippa Burrough Nigel Twiston-Davies/????

26) 0/144/P3- STATE OF PLAY 11-10-06 William & Angela Rucker Evan Williams/Paul Moloney

27) 11-11P5 KING FONTAINE (IRE) 8-10-06 Trevor Hemmings Malcolm Jefferson/Denis O’Regan

28) U-3431U  IN COMPLIANCE (IRE) 11-10-05 Westerly Breeze Syndicate Dessie Hughes IRE/Leighton Aspell

29) 005P-1P HELLO BUD (IRE) 13-10-05 Seamus Murphy Nigel Twiston-Davies/Sam Twiston-Davies

30) P/00-11P WEST END ROCKER (IRE) 9-10-05  Barry Winfield & Tim Leadbeater Alan King/Robert Thornton

31) 200010 SANTA’S SON (IRE) 11-10-05 Douglas Pryde & Jim Beaumont Howard Johnson/Jamie Moore

32) C21-046 BLUESEA CRACKER (IRE) 9-10-04 J P McManus James Motherway IRE/Andrew McNamara

33) 01050 THAT’S RHYTHM (FR) 11-10-04 Don’t Tell Henry Martin Todhunter/James Reveley

34) P2/111/-0 SURFACE TO AIR 10-10-04 Tim Urry  Chris Bealby/Tom Messenger

35) P-234PP PIRAYA (FR) 8-10-04 Terry Neill  David Pipe/Johnny Farrelly

36) 6F-0P5P CAN’T BUY TIME (IRE) 9-10-04 J P McManus  Jonjo O’Neill/Richie McLernon

37) 0-30563 CHARACTER BUILDING (IRE) 11-10-04 Patricia Thompson John Quinn/Miss Nina Carberry

38) 15/1P/-52  ORNAIS (FR) 9-10-04 The Stewart Family Paul Nicholls/Nick Scholfield

39) U2U-0P2 ARBOR SUPREME (IRE) 9-10-03 J P McManus  Willie Mullins IRE/David Casey

40) 013111- OUR MONTY (IRE) 8-10-03 Colland Sand & Gravel Ltd Willie Mullins IRE/Ms Katie Walsh

41) P5U-42P ROYAL ROSA (FR) 12-10-03 Andrea & Graham Wylie Howard Johnson/Paul Gallagher

42) 313-011 SKIPPERS BRIG (IRE) 10-10-02 Ashleybank Investments Limited Nicky Richards/Dominic Elsworth

43) 210010 GOLDEN KITE (IRE) 9-10-02 Dr Anthony Calnan Adrian Maguire IRE/Shane Hassett

44) 006004 ALWAYS WAINING (IRE) 10-10-02 Mr & Mrs Peter James Douglas Peter Bowen/???

45) 321112 PUTNEY BRIDGE 9-10-01 Louise Goldsworthy Keith Goldsworthy/???

46) 4/22-1PP  BELON GALE (IRE) 8-10-01 Andrea & Graham Wylie Howard Johnson/???

47) 402P-02 FAASEL (IRE) 10-10-01 Jim Ennis   David Pipe/???

48) 02043P LE BEAU BAI (FR) 8-10-01 Glass Half Full  Richard Lee/???

49) D61-0F0 MERIGO (FR) 10-10-01 Raymond & Anita Anderson Green Andrew Parker/???

50) 6-02162 ASKTHEMASTER (IRE) 11-10-00 Carrolle Wall  Robert Tyner IRE/???

51) 11P61/0/- STARZAAN (IRE) 12-10-00 Ben Arbib  Hughie Morrison/???

52) 123-P22 GILES CROSS (IRE) 9-10-00 KCMS Partnership Victor Dartnall/???

53) 1U0-660 SADDLERS STORM (IRE) 9-10-00 Billy Moffett/R T & J McLoughlin Tony Martin IRE/???

54) 1-PP11P SAGALYRIQUE (FR) 7-9-13  Sir Robert Ogden Donald McCain/???

55) U0-6042 AMBOBO (USA) 11-9-13 Deirdre Brassil  Martin Brassil IRE/???

56) 241P64 DUERS (IRE) 9-9-13  Kate Kelly/Kate Ronan Paul Magnier IRE/???

57) 11120-P TOBY JUG 10-9-13 Paul & Caron Chapman & Sarah Humphrey Sarah Humphrey/???

58) 131-321 JUNIOR 8-9-12  Middleham Park Racing LI David Pipe/???

59) 064260  THE SAWYER (BEL) 11-9-12 David Fear  Bob Buckler/???

60) 2613-PP GALANT NUIT (FR) 7-9-12  David Parry  Ferdy Murphy/???

61) 044522  BALLYFITZ 11-9-09 Fred & Wayne Mills Nigel Twiston-Davies/???

62) F4-5365 POMME TIEPY (FR) 8-9-09  Susannah Ricci  Willie Mullins IRE/???

63) 24U344 I’MONCLOUDNINE (IRE) 8-9-09  Fred Matthews  Neil Mulholland/???

64) 116PP-P TREACLE (IRE) 10-9-04 Bjorn Nielsen  Tom Taaffe IRE/???

65) P23221  REGAL HEIGHTS (IRE) 10-9-02  Janet Heler  Tom George/???

The order of elimination was decided this afternoon by Phil Smith, Head of Handicapping at the British Horseracing Authority.

The declared runners will be known on Thursday morning and there will be four reserves which have to be utilised by Friday morning.

65 five-day confirmations  20 Irish-trained

The nine horses who did not go forward at today’s five-day stage were Midnight Chase, Synchronised, Scotsirish, Notre Pere, Ballytrim, Nedzer’s Return, Frankie Figg, One Cool Cookie and Dev.