Grand National 2000 Preview

by Terry Clark

Can you find the star bet for Grand National 2000?


DOG-owners, it is said, and is often seen to be the case, grow to look like their pets. With the exceedingly rare exception of one or two tweedy dears I have met at Badbury Rings, horse-owners and trainers don't look like their charges. But an old-fashioned "tout" would tell you: see a string out on the gallops, and you know the trainer without asking, simply from the stamp of horse and the way it's turned out. "Touts" are a near-extinct breed of work-watchers who would probably be bored to tears these days of short, clinical cantering up stretches of all-weather strip, "the plastic gallops" as one old-timer described them to me.

In the good old days at Newmarket, there was George Robinson, master work-watcher, and, before him, a great character of a tout called Arthur Edwards. I best remember George for a telephone call I made to him in the Seventies concerning an up-and-coming trainer. It was the Monday before the Derby when that race was always run on a Wednesday. How would the young master's horse do at Epsom?

"Not very well," declared George, "he won the Derby on Saturday morning." The too-keen trainer had raced the horse over the full Derby distance, and left the Blue Riband behind on the Limekilns gallops.

"Artie" Edwards I remember best for the weeks he spent in bed, down on his back but not out of action, towards the end of his career. There was no complaining, particularly if you brought a bottle of "the forbidden" with you, and all visitors were allowed, even for first lot on the Heath, just so long as you kept quiet while Arthur, propped up on his pillows (which hid some of "the forbidden") with notebook of horses' markings in hand, deciphered his wife's remarks as she watched the gallops through binoculars at their bedroom window.

"White blaze with off-fore sock is leading a flashy chesnut with.." At which point, Arthur would interrupt his wife with such comments as: "Oh, that'll be Tom Jones's two-year-olds; bit late this morning; nearly time for Tom's first G&T."

One look at the form book, one sight of the gallops, and the old touts would have spotted a Henry Daly horse a mile off. Henry has taken on more than the mantle of his mentor, the late Tim Forster; he has assumed his knack of training stayers, cribbing his style of commandeering powerful, big-chested beasts with heart to spare, and adopting the same patient pattern of approach on behalf of the horse. A steady build-up. Not too much too soon, putting the muscle on layer by layer, then honing it down. It's old fashioned. But it works.

The Grand National favourite, Star Traveller, is the living proof. What Henry Daly has not assumed from Tim Forster is his pessimism. Tim was a man to avoid before a National (or any race in which he had a runner, come to that), looking miserable, and barely able to acknowledge your question: "How is the horse?" Those large eyes would look at you, as though the poor animal (and I'm not sure whether I mean here, the trainer or the horse) was on its last legs. It's another story from the Seventies that I already had my money on Well To Do, or I might still have had it in my pocket in the10 minutes or so that it took him to win one of the Tim Forster Grand Nationals. If you take away the Forster winners, and those of Jenny Pitman and Donald "Red Rum" McCain, there are not many Nationals left between that day and this.

Star Traveller came to the current season as an eight-year-old unbeaten over fences; but his last two victories had cost him a rise of 19lb and those who reckoned the cards stacked against him were told-you-sos when he was only second first time up over three miles at Chepstow last October.

But, as it transpired, it was no disgrace to be beaten four lengths trying to give 5lb to Ever Blessed, who went on to capture the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup for Jenny's son, Mark Pitman. Star Traveller then excelled in sequence at Cheltenham: he made virtually all to win at the November countryside day for Peter Scudamore's schoolboy son, Tom, and repeated the trick at the December meeting.

Then, up another 11lb., he was second to Strong Tel off 12st. on the last day of the year. Given a deserved rest, he reappeared for the National Hunt Chase at the Festival and was just run out of it by Marlborough and Beau with the rest of a fine field at a respectable 11 lengths and more further back.

One of the horses light years behind Star Traveller when he ran up to Strong Tel in his penultimate race was Bettys Boy. There won't be such a distance of ground between them at Aintree.

Where Star Traveller lost his National Hunt Chase, Bettys Boy had stormed five lengths clear to win his, revelling in the final climb at the Cheltenham Festival of 1998. It's been a long way back for Kim Bailey since Master Oats and Alderbrook did the Cheltenham champions double in 1995. Whatever his form of late last year, Bettys Boy must not be ruled out since he goes best when fresh.

Also a big price as a result of poor form-figures is the Irish soft-ground stayer Hollybank Buck, who showed a liking for Liverpool when third there in the Becher Chase last November behind another live Aintree contender, Feels Like Gold, with the 1998 Grand National winner, Earth Summit, and Call It A Day, well behind.

Call It A Day has not quite recaptured the sort of form that won him the 1998 Whitbread Gold Cup but, again, he is lightly raced, has had Aintree 2000 as his target all along and could be bang there on good ground if the Alan King stable itself can find a bit of form.

Don't forget that Call It A Day ran on into third place at the end of Bobbyjo's 1999 National, having split Young Kenny and Hollybank Buck in the Midlands Grand National last March.

Bobbyjo is fit again after a quiet preparation but Young Kenny has been a tad disappointing this season. There are those who argue that last year was a case of too much too soon since, before the Midlands National, he had won the Lincolnshire National, then the Greenalls Haydock Trial when only just turned eight. But "Kenny" did secure the National Trial at Uttoxeter this February, stopping another young chaser's sequence, that of Coral Welsh National winner, Edmond.

Edmond's connections left it late before deciding whether to run him at Liverpool, but the trainer had another string to his bow. Edmond is in the same capable hands as Star Traveller, those of Henry Daly. And so we are back to the beginning of our tale. But have we found the National winner?

IF he hadn't lost his way in the Irish Hennessy, then

Leopardstown Chase winner Buck Rogers would be a much shorter price.

IF he hadn't failed to sparkle in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, The Last Fling would be everyone's idea of an improver at the right time.

IF he hadn't "bounced" on his second run back from a lay-off, Red Marauder might have done better in the Racing Post Chase after previously scoring five times in a row.

IF the going came up soft (Micko's Dream).. IF Strong Tel could reproduce the form of his defeat of Star Traveller..

So they continue, the ifs and buts. And the last one is the hunch: mine is for Niki Dee, IF his jumping does not let him down.

One guarantee I can give you. In all the years I helped promote the race under different sponsors, it never let us down. As a spectacle. Or for a good story. Long live the National! May you never call it a day.

TERRY CLARK, a former racing editor in Fleet Street, is editor of the MAJORDATA racing agency at
MajorData has completed 28 months with a profit on its selections every month from December, 1997, to March, 2000, inclusive.

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