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Saturday, April 4, 1998 Published at 05:54 GMT 06:54 UK


The quest for Grand National glory
image: [ The ground will be soft and likely to be heavy going for some of the runners ]
The ground will be soft and likely to be heavy going for some of the runners

As most experienced punters will know, it is hard to pick a winner at the best of times but when you have to choose from 38 of the finest horses, who will be tackling the most testing course in National Hunt racing, the task becomes much more difficult.

[ image: The 1996 winner, Rough Quest, this year's clear favourite]
The 1996 winner, Rough Quest, this year's clear favourite
Already, the bookmakers have made, last year's winner Rough Quest their clear favourite at 7/1. The Terry Casey trained horse has looked in good order according to his connections and a few very large bets have been wagered on him. Mick Fitzgerald will ride him and he will not mind (too much) the softening ground at the Aintree course.

A swathe of different horses are priced between 7/1-12/1. These include, Him of Praise, Suny Bay, Earth Summit, Samlee and Challenger de Luc. All are great horses and have a good chance but the ground and the long distance (four-and-a-half miles) make it difficult to pick one with a much better claim than the others.

Rob Harnett, Tote spokesman: This year's field is high in quantity, not quality
Challenger de Luc will be ridden by the record-breaking jockey, Tony McCoy. He has ridden more than 227 winners this season and says that the horse - who has a reputation for being difficult to handle - will jump well over the fearsome fences at the Liverpool course.

Suny Bay's trainer, Charlie Brooks, has said that the ground is starting to be a worry for his horse. Rain at Aintree has made the running on the National course deteriorate from "good to soft" to "soft" and Brooks thinks that the trip on soft ground could be steep for the old crusader who carries top weight in the handicap race.

[ image: Preparation on the gallops will not prepare horses for the massive Aintree fences]
Preparation on the gallops will not prepare horses for the massive Aintree fences
Previous double National winning trainer Jenny Pitman, has had nothing but bad news so far this week. Two of her horses, Amtrak Express and Mudahim have already been pulled out of the race and now will just have Nahthen Lad competing. Mrs Pitman says that the ground might suit Nahthen Lad and has described the 20/1 shot as "absolutely buzzing."

Further down the betting is Avro Anson, trained by the 31-year-old, Julie Camacho. If the horse were to win Mrs Camacho would be the youngest trainer ever to win the National. The problem again is the ground, which if too soft will cause Mrs Camacho to withdraw the horse from the race.

Mick Fitzgerald, jockey of Rough Quest: the rain will give my horse no problems
"The ground is crucial," she says. "It would be a total waste of time running him if it comes up soft; he just hates it and to ask any horse to run in a race like the National on conditions they don't like just wouldn't be fair."

Connections of Avro Anson have already hinted that it appears more than likely that the horse will be withdrawn to save it from the Aintree mud.

With all the talk being about the conditions at Aintree, some punters are looking for horses that - although outsiders - will be able to cope with the ground. Radical Choice, a 150/1 long shot is a good jumper that should finish the course but is not very experienced.

Celtic Abbey and Brave Highlander have seen their odds cut as both horses will appreciate the long trip and the testing ground. The latter has had severe injury problems in the past but is a brave and hearty stayer.

Apart from the horses already mentioned, punters have another 30 they could wager on. But from the favourites down to Maple Dancer who brings up the betting at 500/1, it really is an open race.

[ image:  ]
Bookmakers are expecting over £150 million pounds in total to be wagered on the race, with millions put on the favourite alone.

BBC News Online asked the experienced punter, Mark Young, where his money would be going on the National and his response perhaps summed up the task.

"I will study the form of the horses, listen intently to the reports of the going, I will examine how the horses look as they parade around the ring and then I'll close my eyes stick a pin in list of runners and hope for the best."

Punters will have an agonising but exciting time after the off at 1445 (GMT)/1545 (BST). Some 30 fences and 15 minutes later a new name will go into the record books as punters collect their winnings or count their losses.

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