THE biggest betting heat in the racing calendar, the Aintree Grand National, takes place on Saturday week, April 4.
Forty horses will line up in the Liverpool spectacular and itâ€™s currently 10-1 the field with the Irish challenge looking as strong as ever this season.
The four and a half mile marathon test at the Liverpool tracks has gone to Irish-trained runners six times in the last ten years.
The father and son team of Tommy and Paul Carberry got the ball rolling with Bobbyjo in 1999, and were followed by Papillon 2000, Montyâ€™s Pass 2003, Hedgehunter 2005, Nubersixvalverde 2006 and Silver Birch in 2007.
There are 25 entries from the Emerald Isle this year ahead of the final declaration stage next week, but only about 13 are likely to make the final cut.
Dessie Hughesâ€™ Black Apalachi, who won the Beecher Chase at the course last November, is 10-1 co-favourite with a couple of firms for the Aintree spectacular. Heâ€™s set to carry 11st 5lb, as is last yearâ€™s Irish Grand National winner, Hear the Echo, trained by Mouse Morris.
Previous Irish Grand National winners have a solid record in the race over the last decade (Bobbyjo, Papillon and Numbersixvalverde all won the Aintree National the following year) and last yearâ€™s Fairyhouse victor is prominent in the betting at about 16/1.
However, his trainer was disappointed that the British handicapper allocated him such a high weight and has indicated that he may rely on his 2006 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner War of Attrition instead. The ten-year-old is well treated on the best of his form but is set to shoulder 11st 9lb after the defection of top weight Snoopy Loopy last week.
The Thomas Oâ€™Leary-trained Priestâ€™s Leap who has won the last two runnings of the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park over three miles will carry 11st 5lb.
Willie Mullinsâ€™ Snowy Morning finished third last year and will carry the same weight, while last yearâ€™s runner-up King Johnâ€™s Castle trained by Arthur Moore is set to carry 11st 4lb for owner JP McManus in the stg Â£900,000 feature. McManus also has the Enda Bolger trained Lâ€™Ami to call upon although this one ended Mick Fitzgeraldâ€™s career when tipping up at the second fence last year leaving the Wexford-born jockey with severe spinal injuries that means he can never sit on a horse again.
The Grand National has only been won once in the last 25 years by a horse carrying more than 11st. That was Willie Mullinsâ€™ Hedgehunter in 2005 ridden by man-of-the moment Ruby Walsh. He was just 1lb above that weight-carrying barrier having tipped up at the last when in contention in Amberleigh Houseâ€™s 2004 win for Ginger McCain.
Only the legendary Red Rum has managed to carry more than 11st 5lb to victory in 50 years of the great race in both 1974 (12st) and 1977(11st 8lb).
All the rumours in Ireland for the past week have been that Walsh may ride his fatherâ€™s horse, Southern Vic in the Aintree showpiece on April 4.
However, Cheltenhamâ€™s leading jockey this year has said that he will wait to see the final weights before deciding. Southern Vic falls into the winning weight carrying bracket on 10st 9lbs.
But given that Ruby will have the pick of British champion National Hunt trainer Paul Nichollsâ€™ entries to choose from â€“ punters should hold fire for a while longer.
Nicholls trains one of the other co favourites in My Will, who ran so well to finish fifth behind Kauto Star at Cheltenham in the Gold Cup, and is officially 8lb â€œwell inâ€ as the handicapper cannot reassess him as the National weights were published on February 10.
The going at the Merseyside venue is currently on the easy side of good with the clerk of the course Andrew Tulloch promising to provide ground no faster than good on the big day on the first Saturday in April.
Stats on previous Aintree Grand National winners:
Just before you sit down with a blindfold and a shiny new pin, here are a couple of stats that may help you to pick the Grand National winner.
Only Hedgehunter in 2005 has carried more than 11 stone (he carried 11st 1 lb) since Corbiere lumped 11 st 4 lbs to victory in 1983 for Jenny Pitman, who became the first woman to train an Aintree Grand National winner.
Horses that have not won over three miles should also be treated with caution by punters.
French-breds have an unenviable record in the race as do six and seven-year-olds and horses aged 12 years plus.
Surprisingly, given that it is seen as such a lottery, horses near the head of the market do well â€“ particularly in the place betting, so 100-1 shots are that price for a reason!