BALTHAZAR KING can reign supreme in the first £1 million Grand National at Aintree today.
The world famous steeplechase, sponsored for the first time by Crabbie's, promises be a thrilling contest yet again with Yorkshire trainer Sue Smith, successful 12 months ago with 66-1 shot Auroras Encore, having two shots at the target.
Her runners are Mr Moonshine and Vintage Star, who is fancied to run a big race under Brian Hughes, but who may have to settle for supporting honours.
Balthazar King has enjoyed a terrific campaign already, being unbeaten in four starts. Trained by Philip Hobbs, he was a narrow but gusty winner of the cross-country chase at last month's Cheltenham Festival, where he once again underlined his bravery and his jumping ability.
Last year in the National, Balthazar King faded out of contention to finish 15th after being among the leaders for a long way. If he is ridden slightly more conservatively this afternoon, he should last home much better. Also, he is in better overall form going into this race than he was 12 months ago. He should give Richard Johnson a great ride.
Vintage Star is the horse selected to follow him home. He has been a decent and progressive performer since graduating from the bumper ranks and although he fell at Cheltenham last month, that may have been a blessing of sorts in disguise as he did not have a hard race as his uncharacteristic tumble came early on. He will be united with Brian Hughes for the first time and the jockey recently schooled him over the specially-constructed Grand National fences on Malton's Langton Wold gallops and was well pleased with how he handled them.
Tony McCoy's decision to opt to partner Double Seven will mean an inevitable shortening of his odds. He looks to have good prospects.
A five-times winner last summer and autumn, which included the Munster National, he has since warmed-up with a respectable run at Leopardstown. He is trained in Ireland by Martin Brassil, who won the 2006 National with Numbersixvalverde.
Plenty of punters will be swayed towards the classier horses in the race, like Tidal Bay and Long Run. But Tidal Bay is now a 13-year-old and no horse of that age has won the Grand National since the 1920's, while Long Run, for all his mighty achievements, has slipped a long way down the rankings in the last 18 months and there is also a question mark about his jumping technique over these unique fences.
Monbeg Dude, winner of last season's Welsh Grand National, has this season won a decent race at Cheltenham. He does, however, have his own way of getting over a fence and even with the brilliant Paul Carberry on his back, he may struggle to complete the course.
The lightly-raced Rocky Creek has potential in abundance, but he does lack experience and it may prove that this race will come a year too early for him.
By contrast, today's race may have come too late for Prince De Beauchene, who was strongly fancied for the last two Grand Nationals only to be forced to miss the race because of injury. He is now 11-years-old and may have missed the boat.
Teaforthree is a different proposition. He finished a good third last year and had looked the most likely winner approaching the final fence. He is a very sound jumper and, provided his latest unplaced effort in the Cheltenham Gold Cup has not left it's mark, he looks sure to be on the premises again.
Sue Smith's other runner, Mr Moonshine finished third in the Becher Chase over these fences earlier in the season, but he will need to stay better than when fading out of the reckoning in last year's National.
As for Rose Of The Moon, a first runner in the National for North Yorkshire trainer David O'Meara, he won at Wetherby last time out but lacks the basic fencing experience to put him in with a serious shout.
Big Shu, a successful cross-country performer, The Package, who ran well after a lay-off at last month's Cheltenham Festival, and Burton Port, who looks extremely well-weighted on the best of his form, are a trio who could run well.
It's a race like no other and is not to be missed.
TOM'S FIRST FOUR
1 Balthazar King
2 Vintage Star
3 Double Seven