Grand National thoughts
(Healy Racing Photos)
The 16-times champion jockey is famed for his never-say-die riding style and that was seen in full glory as he coaxed Jonjo O'Neill's Synchronised up the famous Cheltenham hill to win last month's blue riband.
There were scenes of similar unbridled joy when McCoy finally ended his Grand National hoodoo when striking aboard the O'Neill-trained Don't Push It in 2010, and he now aims to repeat the dose on a horse he has described as an "ugly duckling".
Even his connections would admit that Synchronised does not have the same class and stature of previous Gold Cup champions like Kauto Star and Denman, and his jumping is often anything but fluent.
But what the Midlands and Welsh National winner does have in spades is courage, and McCoy is hoping that will stand him in good stead as he prepares to tackle the most famous four and a half miles in the sport.
"I've ridden horses round Aintree that I didn't look forward to riding and they've jumped very well, and I've ridden horses round there that I thought would be brilliant and they've been anything but," said McCoy.
"Some horses take to it and some horses don't. The only way you find out is by running them.
"He's a really tough horse and he tries, he has surprised us a lot in the past so he might have one more up his sleeve."
Given how he is often scrubbed along early in his races before finishing with a flourish, it is no real surprise that Synchronised often takes a long time to recover from his battles.
After his slightly surprising win in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, connections had to miss the Hennessy Gold Cup back at the track in early February as he was not showing them the right signs at home.
However, McCoy insists he has taken his Cheltenham exertions in his stride.
"It took him a little while to get over winning the Lexus Chase in Ireland, but saying that, there is every possibility he's a healthier horse now than he was then for whatever reason," the jockey continued.
"Whether it was the travelling or whatever after Ireland, it just took him a long time to get over it."
Another leading Aintree hope whose jumping has been questioned in some quarters is the David Pipe-trained Junior.
So often there is a fascinating narrative to back up the National winner and this horse is not short in that department as he bids to become the first horse ever to win at Royal Ascot, the Cheltenham Festival and land the world's most famous steeplechase.
The nine-year-old has been campaigned with just this race in mind this season, with a run in a Newbury hurdle race and a close second in Doncaster's Grimthorpe Chase under his belt, with the form of that race well advertised since by Ikorodu Road.
Big-race jockey Tom Scudamore believes the ultimate test of Aintree could be just what Junior wants.
"David has been very happy with him at home. I've seen him about the place and he's looking fantastic and in really good order," said Scudamore.
"He's always struck me as an ideal National type. He's very similar to the likes of Blowing Wind and Bindaree in that he's a very intelligent horse to ride and very straightforward.
"He can cope with the big occasion having won at Royal Ascot and at the Cheltenham Festival - he's just a big occasion horse and thrives on it.
"You need horses that are brave, you need the nimbleness and above all the intelligence. You need a horse that can think for themselves and sort themselves out, because there is plenty going on, not just with the fences but with loose horses and things all around.
"Junior is certainly a very intelligent horse and I don't see any reason why he wouldn't take to Liverpool and thrive on it," he told At The Races.
Tom Taaffe trained Kicking King to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2005 and bids to add the Grand National to his CV with the intriguing Treacle.
He boasts some excellent form this season, having run a close second in the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown before running third in the Hennessy Gold Cup.
Some home schooling over purpose-built Aintree fences is giving the trainer plenty of encouragement.
"We've been popping him over the Aintree-style fences we made at home and he's had no issues with them," said Taaffe.
"He's been campaigned to get him fit and well for Aintree and I'm happy with him.
"Aintree is Aintree, it's a bit of a lottery and you have to get into a rhythm and you've got to be lucky over the first six fences."
One of the classiest horses in the race is the grey Neptune Collonges, bidding to give champion trainer Paul Nicholls his first National success.
Although the 11-year-old has lost a yard of pace since finishing behind esteemed stablemates Kauto Star and Denman in Cheltenham Gold Cups, his close second in the Grand National Trial at Haydock suggests he could be a force this weekend.
Nicholls' assistant, Dan Skelton, said: "He's a consistent horse. Obviously the fancy Grade One form is a couple of years behind him now, but he is a proven top-end contender, a bit of rain might help him on the first circuit.
"He's a very sound jumper, he's very genuine and shouldn't have a problem with the trip, so he has to come into some sort of reckoning.
"It's a race that of course we would love to win."
Mon Mome was famously a 100-1 winner of this race in 2009, but is winless since and has spent a long time on the sidelines as well.
A fine second at Cheltenham on New Year's Day suggested there was still some fire in the belly, but his three starts since have been less encouraging.
The veteran's trainer, Venetia Williams, said: "He's been a fabulous horse for us. It's a huge ask really for a 12-year-old, I know there have been 12-year-old winners in the past but it's a different race now.
"He was third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup a couple of years ago but unfortunately last year he had ligament trouble and was off.
"He's come back this year but the last twice he's run he's not enjoyed the really deep ground and Aidan (Coleman) was quite happy to leave him alone."
Grade One-winning chaser Planet Of Sound has run well on his two starts this season, placing in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury and most recently the Racing Plus Chase at Kempton.
Philip Hobbs' inmate heads to Aintree well treated on the best of his form, but the rain that has fallen this week might not be in his favour.
Jockey Richard Johnson said: "He's been campaigned for the race all year and he ran really well in the Hennessy behind Carruthers and was then a good third in the Racing Plus Chase at Kempton.
"He goes into the National a fresh horse, but he wouldn't want too much rain.
"It's hard to know how he'll take to the fences, he schools well and he's been round all the major tracks so it's fingers crossed."
Donald McCain's Ballabriggs bids to become the first back-to-back winner since the legendary Red Rum, who was, of course, trained by his late father Ginger McCain.
Ginger was on hand to see the National celebrations 12 months ago in what turned out to be the last year of his life, and there would clearly be no more poignant or emotional winner if Ballabriggs can do it again.
"At the start of the season myself and Mr (Trevor) Hemmings (owner) had a talk and it goes without saying the target was one day, Grand National day, and we've worked back from there," said the trainer.
"He was tired after the National but after an hour he was fine and the next morning he looked a million dollars.
"I don't see any reason at all why he shouldn't go there and run his race again.
"He's got more weight to carry, but he's a big, strong horse and if he takes to the place the same as he did last year, then he's going to be thereabouts."
McCain has a second string to his bow in the form of the talented Weird Al, who was pulled up with a broken blood vessel in last month's Cheltenham Gold Cup.
"He burst a blood vessel at Cheltenham and that's not the first time it's happened," McCain continued.
"He was fit and well for Cheltenham, he'd had a good long break and we concentrated on that one day.
"After that we had to decide what was the next step. He gives me the impression of a horse that could take to the place.
"If he did he has a touch of class. All things were geared round Cheltenham and it never happened.
"This is an obvious target for now and with his way of racing and the bit of quality he's got, he could be very interesting if he takes to the place.
"He didn't go far enough to have a race at Cheltenham. It's been four weeks and we're very happy with him."
Ted Walsh trained the strongly-supported Papillon to win the race in 2000 and has another fascinating contender on his hands in Seabass.
The nine-year-old is unbeaten in his last seven starts and with the trainer's son Ruby deciding to ride the Willie Mullins-trained On His Own, Seabass will be partnered by Ruby's sister and Ted's daughter, Katie Walsh.
Familiarity will not be an issue with Katie having guided the gelding to two victories this season and the trainer admits the only major concern is the marathon distance.
"To be a serious contender beforehand, you need to have proved you'll get the trip and Seabass hasn't," he said.
"Horses like Synchronised, who has won a Welsh National and a Midlands National, and Giles Cross have proved they'll get the trip.
"You can only win the National if you have a lot of luck, you've got to jump round and you've got to stay.
"It's four and a half miles. Getting four miles is no good, you've got to get four and a half.
"It would be a wonderful thing for us as a family, and particularly for Katie (to win).
"To have a ride in a National is a great thing - it's like a young footballer having a day out in the FA Cup Final.
"To win would be a bonus, but to jump around this famous course, have a good ride and have a smile on your face, that's what it's all about.
"The horse is in good order, travelled over well and has eaten well, so he's in good nick.
"The ground is in good shape so there'll be no excuses that way.
"The trip is the big problem - I have no idea whether he'll get four and a half miles or not. We're going into the unknown.
"He's like Papillon in some ways. He maybe hasn't got as good a disposition as Papillon.
"This horse can be a bit meaner, but like Papillon he can jump well.
"Papillon had a trouble-free career, this horse has had an interrupted career."
Katie Walsh is thrilled to have the opportunity to ride and plans to be positive from the outset.
"It's a fantastic opportunity to ride in the English National, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity and what happens, happens. It's great to be part of it and I can't wait," she said.
"I don't think he has to make it, but I'd like to be in the first half dozen, I think you have to be. I don't think you can drop out in the English National.
"He's won over two and a half and three (miles), I don't know if he'll stay four and a half but if I get that far, I won't be doing too bad.
"He's a fantastic jumper, he doesn't mind horses around him and I wouldn't swap him, I know him like the back of my hand."
Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins has also experienced Aintree glory, with Hedgehunter a winning favourite in 2005.
On His Own heads this year's three-strong team after ante-post favourite Prince De Beauchene suffered a season-ending setback.
Last year's beaten favourite The Midnight Club and Quiscover Fontaine are also interesting.
"On His Own is a huge, long-striding horse and he'll like this drying ground," said Mullins.
"He's been working well, he'd been working well alongside Prince De Beauchene all the time.
"A lot of people probably had Prince De Beauchene on their radar, but this fellow's homework has been very good.
"We decided after the Thyestes Chase that we'd put him away for this race.
"The Midnight Club made a bad mistake at the third fence here last year and it just upset him for the rest of the race, but he still finished sixth.
"If he gets into a rhythm early on, I don't think the trip will be any trouble to him.
"However, he just hasn't returned to form this year yet and I'm hoping that breathing in some Aintree air will revitalise him.
"Quiscover Fontaine ran a terrific race in the Irish Grand National last year and we haven't run him over fences since, but he's done plenty of schooling.
"He stays well I think and if he takes to the Aintree fences, he wouldn't be out of it either."
Ruby Walsh was spoilt for choice having had the options of Seabass, the Mullins-trained trio and Paul Nicholls' Neptune Collonges.
He believes Gold Cup hero Sychronised could prove the toughest nut to crack.
"I think Synchronised is the one to beat. He's 7lb well-in and if he jumps quick enough he's the one we have to beat but the National is the National, it could be all over at the first," Walsh told Racing UK.
"Of Willie's three, I rode The Midnight Club last year and he doesn't seem in as good a form this year, Quiscover Fontaine is very unexposed, Paul Nicholls is very keen on Neptune Collonges and he is a Grade One winner and I could have ridden Seabass for my dad.
"On His Own is eight years of age, he has a good weight on his back in 10st 11lb and it was a good performance in the Thyestes so he's the one I plumped for. I'm looking forward to it, and a drop of rain will suit.
"Seabass has his chance, but I'd be worried about him getting the trip."
Alan King's West End Rocker was brought down jumping Becher's Brook first time a year ago, but the experience did clearly not sour him as he jumped like a buck to win the Becher Chase over these fences in November.
Circumstances mean he has not had a run since, but his trainer is delighted with his condition.
"I haven't had many National runners, but I think this is the strongest challenge we've ever come with," said King.
"He looked to be travelling really well and jumping well last year and it was not a fault of his that he got brought down at Becher's.
"You're never quite sure if they'll go back and do it a second time but when we saw him in the Becher, he clearly was enjoying the place.
"I would have liked to have given him another run. The plan was to run him in the Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster but the ground went good to firm and I couldn't risk him.
"He's done plenty of work and he's good fresh, so fingers crossed.
"It's a National and I'm not going there with great expectations as that's one way to be disappointed.
"But he's in great form and I just hope he keeps out of trouble."
Nicky Henderson is chasing his first trainer's title since the late 1980s and with well over £500,000 to the Grand National winner, victory for Shakalakaboomboom would virtually assure Henderson's status as champion.
Henderson said: "He's done everything right at home and shouldn't mind the ground. He was very good over the fences in the Topham last year so I'm sure he'll handle them."
Yorkshire trainer Malcolm Jefferson has enjoyed a fine spring, saddling a double at the Cheltenham Festival.
One of those winners, Cape Tribulation, followed up at Aintree on Thursday and the handler now shoots for National glory with According To Pete.
The 11-year-old has won the Rowland Meyrick Chase at Wetherby and the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock already this season and was a fine second at Kelso on his last start.
"The horse is in great order - I couldn't be happier with him," said Jefferson.
"You keep tingling and a lot of it is anticipation.
"You just want everything to go right and for the horse to come back safe and sound.
"To win would be unbelievable. It would be great if it happens, it honestly will.
"He's always been a great little horse. He's a battler and he jumps well. To win would be great but to come home safe and sound is the main thing."
Black Apalachi, runner-up to Don't Push It two years ago, heads four runners from Dessie Hughes' County Kildare stable.
"They all travelled over well and are in good form," said Hughes.
"It's a pity the handicapper didn't drop Black Apalachi, but he didn't so he has to carry that weight now.
"Rare Bob is in great form and hopefully the ground won't dry up for him.
"The whole intention of keeping In Compliance in training again this year was to run him in the National. He gets in so he runs. We only put him in the Topham if he didn't get in the National.
"Vic Venturi has been unlucky in the National a couple of times."
» All news for Fri, 13th Apr, 2012
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