Grand National 2017: Aintree names to follow for the big race

The Grand National crowd
The Grand National is the richest jump race in the world outside of Japan with a £1m prize pool
Randox Health Grand National
Dates: 6-8 April Venue: Aintree Grand National: Saturday 8 April, 17:15 BST
Coverage: Commentary on BBC Radio 5 live & BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, live text coverage of the Grand National on 8 April on the BBC Sport website and app (full coverage details)

The big day is almost here, so let's look ahead to Saturday's Grand National at Aintree - including favourites, anniversaries, misspelt horses' names and much more…

A family affair

Vieux Lion Rouge (number nine)
Vieux Lion Rouge (number nine) on the way to winning the Becher Chase at Aintree in December

Myrtle Scudamore, the eight-year-old daughter of jockey Tom - rider of leading Grand National fancy Vieux Lion Rouge - sums up her family's Aintree dilemma.

"What will we do, Daddy," she asks, "if you and Grumpy Grandad's horse come to the final fence together?"

Grumpy Grandad is Tom's father Peter, eight-time champion jump jockey of the 1980s and 90s, who with partner Lucinda Russell has been preparing another major contender, One For Arthur, at their base north of Edinburgh.

Both horses have enjoyed successful seasons, particularly the David Pipe-trained Vieux Lion Rouge, seventh in 2016, and winner of Aintree's Becher Chase in December when defeating four of his big-race rivals including One For Arthur (fifth).

Success for either would be a significant one for the Scudamore clan: Tom is having his 16th go at the race - he's finished eighth twice - while in 12 attempts Peter was never closer than third.

Tom's trainer-brother Michael has saddled a Grand National third, but none of them have emulated Peter's father, Michael senior, who rode Oxo to win in 1959.

"Obviously, we're all itching to win it, and if it's not 'Arthur', of course I hope it's Tom," said Peter.

As for young Myrtle, she'll be cheering on Vieux Lion Rouge, but has promised to happily defect if One For Arthur comes out on top, not least because Grumpy Grandad has promised her a new pony if he wins.

Fact: Vieux Lion Rouge - BBC 5 Live commentator John Hunt says he'd prefer Old Red Lion - seeks to become the first horse to complete the Haydock Grand National Trial/Grand National double; One For Arthur would be only the second Scottish-trained winner after Rubstic (1979).

Verdict: The unique course holds no fears for Vieux Lion Rouge, but will his stamina last out? (It didn't last year, but Tom Scudamore is convinced he's better now). One For Arthur needs to show he's as good in drier conditions, but turns up - with regular rider Derek Fox fit again - in excellent form.

A 'wonderful charm' for Walsh?

Katie Walsh
Katie Walsh achieved the best finish by a female jockey when third on Seabass in 2012

Amid all the anniversaries in 2017 - the bomb alert-delayed race of 1997, Red Rum's Grand National treble completed 40 years ago and Foinavon's shock 1967 win - another significant landmark must not be forgotten.

Though Barony Fort refused at fence 27 in 1977, his jockey Charlotte Brew made history as the first female rider to participate.

Since then, 14 more women have lined up, including Katie Walsh, whose third place on Seabass, behind Neptune Collonges in 2012, is the best finishing position.

Seabass completed the course again under Walsh a year later and went off as favourite or joint-favourite both times.

The sister of two-time winning jockey Ruby Walsh, who is set for her fifth Grand National mount on the Paul Nicholls-trained Wonderful Charm despite a late injury scare, says there is no reason why a female jockey won't one day be successful - it's just a matter of when.

And 40 years on from Barony Fort, my goodness the racing landscape has changed for once-marginalised women; females won all three amateur-rider races at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival.

In Ireland, Rachael Blackmore leads the conditional jockeys' [jumps' apprentices] title race, and Josephine Gordon is British flat racing's reigning champion apprentice.

Fact: Wonderful Charm's trainer Paul Nicholls has up to five runners as he looks to add prize money - it's over £560,000 for first - to his total in the struggle with Nicky Henderson to be champion trainer.

Verdict: Wonderful Charm is likely to go well for Walsh, but the stable's big hope is gallant Cheltenham Gold Cup fifth Saphir Du Rheu, the mount of Sam Twiston-Davies.

Speaking of anniversaries…

Gordon Elliott
Gordon Elliott was leading trainer at the Cheltenham Festival for the first time last month

It's also 10 years since Gordon Elliott, then 29 and a little-known trainer from County Meath, Ireland, galloped into many in-boxes for the first time when successful in the Grand National with Silver Birch.

When the 10-year-old, bought cheaply out of the Paul Nicholls stable after his previous owner divorced, walked into the hallowed winners' circle at Aintree, Elliott had never won a professional race at home.

A decade later, and now with a 200-strong string of horses, many owned by airline tycoon Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud operation, Elliott comes to Aintree with a spring in his step having been top stable at the Cheltenham Festival.

He also heads the Irish trainers' championship that Willie Mullins has dominated for nine seasons.

O'Leary scratched several of Elliott's potential runners in a row over the weights they were allotted, so it's three-time Festival winner Cause Of Causes and Ucello Conti, last year's sixth - neither owned by Gigginstown - which head the Elliott challenge.

Having won 19 of the 28 races at Cheltenham, Irish jump racing is on the crest of a wave too, and with around a dozen Grand National contenders hopes are high of following up the now-retired Rule The World's win of 12 months ago.

Rule The World's trainer Mouse Morris has spoken well of his Gigginstown-owned pair, Rogue Angel and Thunder And Roses, while 2016's winning jockey David Mullins is back, riding outsider Stellar Notion.

Fact: After drawing a blank from 1975 (L'Escargot) until 1999 (Bobbyjo), Irish-trained horses have won six times since.

Verdict: The Irish contender I like is the Willie Mullins-trained Pleasant Company who impressed in his prep race at Fairyhouse in February, ridden by Ruby Walsh. I can see him being behind before gradually picking off rivals.

Could 'Definitly' spell success?

Definitly Red
Steam rising from Definitly Red at the stables of Brian Ellison in Malton, North Yorkshire

Amid the betting frenzy that surrounds the Grand National, it's being suggested one name may stand out, in the process highlighting one of racing's biggest spelling mistakes.

With Aintree being on Merseyside, where red is so prevalent in sport, and the fact many people worldwide believe it their lucky colour, Definitly Red is sure to be all the rage. (There's an 'e' missing in his name, by the way. It's believed whoever filled out the horse's registration papers wasn't a great speller...)

And the credentials of the Brian Ellison-trained runner, who has an attractive mid-range weight, add up too: he's the winner of three races this season, earning his place in the line-up with a fine-jumping success over 2016 runner-up The Last Samuri (also misspelled, you might have noticed) in Doncaster's Grimthorpe Chase.

The preparation of Definitly Red, one of three fancied runners - along with One For Arthur and Highland Lodge - from jump racing's currently less fashionable Northern and Scottish circuit, is described by Yorkshire-based Ellison as "better than perfect".

On board, riding in the silks of owner Phil Martin, will be jockey Danny Cook, whose appearance on jump racing's biggest stage is, in a way, doubly unlikely.

Not only has Cook successfully rebuilt his reputation after serving a six-month ban in 2015 following a positive test for cocaine - "a catastrophic error of judgement" - he might also have been facing rather more formidable opponents than Becher's Brook and The Chair.

As a teenager, he applied to the Army as well as to the Northern Racing College - it's the Grand National's gain that the NRC answered first.

Fact: Arriving aged 16 at the Racing College, Cook had never sat on a horse and admits to be being scared of them.

Carrying 11st 10lb, compared to 10-8 in 2016, The Last Samuri would be the first top weight to win since Red Rum in 1974.

Verdict: Brilliant last time, Definitly Red has reportedly been doing all the right things on the gallops, but has never been around Aintree and has fallen or unseated on 'standard' courses twice in the last 13 months. Weight is the big issue for The Last Samuri.

O'Neill wants more of that winning feeling

Jonjo O'Neill
Jonjo O'Neill is aiming to repeat his 2010 success

Prior to 2010 when he successfully prepared Don't Push It for Grand National glory under AP McCoy, champion jockey-turned-trainer Jonjo O'Neill always had his famous good nature tested at Aintree.

Not only had he never saddled a winner of the big race - though he'd had runners finish second and third - but in his riding days he had not managed to even complete the course in eight attempts.

Don't Push It famously removed that particular monkey from O'Neill's back - and from McCoy's; it was his 15th attempt - and the trainer looks to have a decent chance this time with More Of That.

Once a champion over hurdles, More Of That hasn't reached the same heights over steeplechase fences, however he's given the impression he's gradually getting there and a good run is anticipated.

Fact: The furthest O'Neill got when riding in a Grand National was fence 24 (the Canal Turn, second time around) when unseated by Sir Garnet in 1977.

Verdict: More Of That has plenty of weight, but he's a classy individual, and there's a feeling he's coming to the boil - he was certainly not disgraced in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Any other business…

The Grand National's equal most successful owner, Trevor Hemmings, has, along with Patricia and David Thompson of Cheveley Park Stud, been flexing his cheque book in the build-up.

Hemmings, whose victories have come with Hedgehunter, Ballabriggs and the recently-deceased Many Clouds, has purchased the Paul Nicholls-trained Vicente for whom top North of England-based jockey Brian Hughes has been booked.

The Thompsons will hope lightning can strike again, 25 years on from buying 1992 winner Party Politics just before the race. This time, they've acquired another Nicholls runner, Le Mercurey, plus Highland Lodge who's lined up in Aintree's Becher Chase three times and has form figures of 8-1-2.

Meanwhile, a third Nicholls horse - Just A Par - was also snapped up by the Thompsons at an auction on the course after the first of the three days and will run in their son Richard's name.

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Officials at Aintree have made minor changes to three fences, all open ditches, on the National course ahead of this year's race.

Previously, £1.5m was spent on modifications after two fatal injuries in each of the Grand Nationals of 2011 and 2012. Since then there have been none, though in the same period there have been six in the four other races staged over the track during the year.

With the weather set to be generally fine, clerk of the course Andrew Tulloch can rely on a new 'pop-up' irrigation system to ensure the going doesn't dry too much.

Grand National
Runners have to negotiate 30 fences over four-and-a-quarter miles

*****

It's said the £300m gambled on the Grand National will contribute to an estimated total of £500m wagered on one of the year's biggest betting weekends.

Also taking place are golf's Masters, the Chinese F1 Grand Prix and a string of Premier League matches.

As favourites like Definitly Red and Vieux Lion Rouge are talked up, it's worth bearing in mind the average odds of a Grand National winner since the turn of the century is close to 28-1.