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Grand National: (On) Trial?

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Nic Doggett journeys from Moreton in Marsh to Mexico as he tries to establish whether Saturday's Grand National Trial is likely to live up to its name.

Browsing the confirmed declarations for Saturday’s Grand National Trial at Haydock, which is due to be run on much quicker ground than is often the case, led me to the horse profile for Vicente. The ground was good to soft when he won the Scottish Grand National last April - and he looks overpriced at 20/1 for Saturday’s race as a result - however it was the name of Ian Fogg, who joint-owns the horse with John Hales, that caught my eye. The only other Foggs I’m familiar with are Phileas, the protagonist in the 1873 Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days, and Willy, the cartoon version of the same character; so let’s journey Around the Race in 80 Ways*.

The only other horse that Hales and Fogg have joint-owned in recent years is Brother du Berlais. Brother du Berlais, a winner at Ayr on his second start in Britain, shares the latter part of his name (but no parentage) with Madison du Berlais, the 2008 Hennessy Gold Cup winner who was one of nine horses pulled up in the 2011 Grand National Trial. That renewal was won by Silver By Nature, who is trained by Lucinda Russell, who shares her surname with former Gloucestershire and England cricketer Jack Russell. Apart from sharing his name with a dog, Russell is now renowned for his paintings, and for £3,000 you can have an oil on canvas depiction of leather striking willow at Moreton in Marsh. Moreton in Marsh is where Martin Keighley trains. Martin Keighley, who was recently given permisson by the BHA to continue training despite being declared bankrupt, saddled Any Currency to win last season’s Cross Country Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. Any Currency was later disqualified after testing positive for a banned substance, something he has in common with Waterford Crystal who was ridden by Cian O’Connor to win equestrian gold, originally the only Irish medallist of the 2004 Olympic Games, until the results came back, that is. Cian O’Connor shares his forename (and O’nitials) with Cian Collins, the current conditional jockey for Gordon Elliott. Gordon Elliott has never even had a runner in the Grand National Trial, but he has had success in the big race itself, winning it in 2007 with Silver Birch. Silver Birch was formerly trained by Paul Nicholls, who won the Grand National Trial (before it was called such a thing) in 2003 with Shotgun Willy. The almost identically-named Shotgun Willie was the name of a 1973 album by country legend Willie Nelson, who was born in 1933 in Abbott, Texas. Newton Abbot has one less ‘t’ and its racecourse is #13 in the list of ‘Things To Do in Newton Abbot’ on Trip Advisor (#1 is the Stover Country Park and Nature Reserve). The number 13 is considered an unlucky number by some and fear of the number is called Triskaidekaphobia. The horse by the same name won 10 races between 2005 and 2011, five of which came at Wolverhampton. The West Midlands city has a football team called Wolverhampton Wanderers, for whom Steve Bull is their record goalscorer (306 goals). A bull is an adult male of the cattle species that hasn’t been castrated - the meat of the less fortunate ones is sold in butchers. A butcher features in the nursery rhyme Rub-a-dub-dub, along with the candlestick-maker and the baker. Cheryl Baker was a member of  the 1980s pop group Bucks Fizz, though she changed her name (originally Rita Maria Crudgington) much like current Geordie warbler Cheryl (no surname). Cheryl Tweedy-Cole-Fernandez-Versini at one time shared part of her name with Vicente Fernández. Vicente, the starting point for these inane ramblings, is currently 20/1 for Saturday’s Grand National Trial. Congratulations if you made it to the end.

*Don’t worry, it’s only 20 really.

The Grand National Trial was given its current title in 2011, having previously been known as the Gold Cup Chase with a variety of sponsors ranging from De Vere to Red Square to Blue Square (Purple²?). Much like there are now lots of ‘Nationals’ dotted around Britain over the course of the jumps season, there is also a growing trend of including the word ‘Trial’ in race titles. But what makes a Trial? Is there any substance behind the claim?

Below is a graph showing the finishing positions of horses (since 2000) that ran in both the Grand National Trial and the Grand National in that same season.

As you can see from the random nature of the blue dots, there really is very little correlation between a good performance in the Grand National Trial and a good performance in the Grand National itself. The seven Grand National Trial winners that have gone on to run in that season’s Grand National have finished 5th, 7th, 12th, 16th, 32nd, 38th and 40th. Ideal for choosing your lottery numbers but not a great deal of use for punters wanting a pointer for the big one in April.

The 2005 Grand National Trial winner Forest Gunner was ridden by Peter Buchanan at Haydock but subsequently provided Carrie Ford – riding just 10 weeks after giving birth to her daughter - with the joint-best Grand National finish for a female jockey (at that time, since surpassed by Katie Walsh on Seabass who was third in 2012) when finishing fifth in the Grand National won by Hedgehunter. She was only riding Forest Gunner, a horse trained by her husband, Richard, because four potential male jockeys were already booked on alternative rides when the decision to enter the Grand National was made. In a month that has seen female jockeys given a 3 lb allowance in France, it is apposite to remember the late Ginger McCain’s quote. Never shy around the reporters’ microphones, the man as synonymous with Aintree as Red Rum was withering about Ford. "Horses do not win Grand Nationals ridden by women - that's a fact. Carrie is a grand lass, but she's a brood mare now, and having kids does not get you fit to ride in Grand Nationals," he said. There are no female jockeys riding in Saturday’s Grand National Trial (a race that female trainers have an excellent record in, incidentally), and, with Nina Carberry currently off having a family of her own, there are very few female candidates (bar Katie Walsh, who is likely to partner Foxrock) for a ride in the Grand National itself in April. With McCain’s rationale still prevalent, it’s hard to imagine that the BHA introducing its own 4.4 lb weight allowance for female jockeys would change that.

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Tuesday 28 March
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Michael Scudamore
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