A unique sporting occasion

  Kevin Hussey  After perhaps the most remarkable Cheltenham Festival of recent times, the forthcoming meetings at Aintree and Punchestown will have to look to their laurels if they are not to pale in comparison. Such was the standard of achievement in the Cotswolds that it is hard to imagine it being matched by the last of the great jumping events of the season. Remarkably, this may be the case.    At the time of writing both Master Minded and Kauto Star are set to reappear at Liverpool this week, with the latter having something to prove after his gallant defeat. Better ground may see this wonderful horse at his very best.   The centrepiece, however, still has to be the Grand National. This  has become a very high class contest of late with the altered handicapping approach and one now expects to see an animal of high merit capturing what is still the most charismatic contest in racing.   As usual, forty runners are set to take part and this has to be of some concern to adherents of the obvious favourite, Cloudy Lane, who is now thought to be a likely 5/1 shot on the day. Trevor Hemmings is one of the luckiest and most respected of owners and this improving chaser has had an impeccable approach to the great race. But at the likely odds he is hardly an attactive proposition and those looking for value may feel compelled to search elsewhere.   It would be possible to make a case for a large proportion of the field, but if forced to compress one’s portfolio, four of the favourite’s challengers come most readily to mind.   This has never been a lucky race for the astonishing Paul Nicholls, but this year he has a real live chance with the superb jumper Mr. Pointment, who strolled home last autumn over the course and looked every inch a National Horse. He has sinced put in a mystifying display at Doncaster, but if one can forgive that he has  a sound chance despite a big weight. Sam Thomas takes the ride and will be looking to crown a brilliant season by once again emerging from the shadow of Ruby Walsh. Bewley’s Berry ran him close at Aintree and has also to be much respected.   The Irish National has become an influential trial for Aintree in the past and Butler’s Cabin has been specifically readied for race this year. His efforts this season have been mediocre, but those who wish to look at the staying pedigree of this horse will be encouraged to overlook those shortcomings. A.P. McCoy has chosen him above the gambled on King John’s Castle and his Cheltenham and Fairyhouse form last spring give further encouragement. He  has solid credentials and is at a very alluring price to cancel out the stable’ s bad luck with Clan Royal here a few years ago.   A horse with a touch of class is Patsy Hall, who ran a tremendous race at Cheltenham and has form against the best of last season’s novices, notably Aces Four. He gets in here with a low weight despite his credentials and is currently trading at around 33/1.    Aintree is, in many ways, to be preferred to Cheltenham in terms of crowds and access. The new stands enhance its profile and it is hard to find a better National Hunt meeting anywhere. It is certainly a festival with its own particular attraction. Even if one is not interested in racing, the crowd is a spectacle in itself. Anthropologists would certainly find much to fascinate on the Friday, Ladies’ Day, when the contest to wear the least clothes without getting arrested becomes more and more keenly fought out year after year. It can only be  a matter of time before Paddy Power et al run a book on this as well.    Meanwhile, Butler’s Cabin and Mr. Pointment may reward an interest in a unique sporting occasion.