Professional punter Harry Findlay has never made any secret of how much he would love to see his horse Denman, nicknamed “the tank” for his massive size and uncompromisingly powerful racing style, face the greatest equine challenge of them all, the Grand National.
And now the giant 10-year-old is to take a step towards Aintree 2011 with the news last night that he is highly likely to run in the Scottish version of the marathon at Ayr on Saturday fortnight.
Denman won the Cheltenham Gold Cup two years ago and was runner-up a year later, repeating the performance this year when he chased home Imperial Commander under Tony McCoy 12 days ago.
He will head the weights for the £200,000 four-miler on 11st 12lbs, with the next highest-rated on the list, Madison de Berlais, set to carry 10st 1lb.
It would be a toe in the water over an extreme distance for Denman, trained by Paul Nicholls, who has yet to tackle anything further than the Gold Cup's extended three and a quarter miles. His potentially explosive Ayr raid, though, is weather-dependent.
“I think it is virtually certain if the ground is soft,” said Paul Barber, who joint-owns the gelding with Findlay and whose colours the horse has been carrying this season in their turn-about arrangement. “But if it is fast, or even good, he will not be running. It has got to be soft.”
The Scottish National would give Denman — introduced as |5-2 favourite — a full four weeks' recovery time after his gallant Cheltenham effort. With a line already drawn through next week's Aintree meeting, a Grade 1 contest at Punchestown the week after Ayr is the only alternative.
With just 10 days to go to the Grand National, the question everyone is asking is whether McCoy can finally win the world's most famous steeplechase at the 15th time of asking. According to the bookies, the horse most likely to be saddled with the extra burden of overcoming one of the sport's most renowned jinxes is Can't Buy Time.
The gelding, sixth behind the big-race market leader Big Fella Thanks — who will carry Findlay's hopes this year — at Newbury earlier this month, is trained by Jonjo O'Neill, likewise never blessed with much luck in the National. In his days as a jockey he never even completed the course — at least McCoy has three third places to his name.
Can't Buy Time and O'Neill's other contender, Don't Push it, are owned by yet another of the sport's high-profile contenders for its highest-profile prize.
JP McManus has sent out 32 runners so far, with Clan Royal's second spot six years ago the nearest he has come to the bull.
His other two challengers, Arbor Supreme and King John's Castle, are trained in Ireland by Willie Mullins and Arthur Moore respectively. The former, the mount of Paul Townend, is highest-placed in the ante-post market at around 12-1.
Aidan Coleman, who will ride last year's 100-1 winner and this year's 10-1 second favourite Mon Mome — also third in this month’s Gold Cup — had an up-and-down afternoon at Fontwell yesterday, a crashing fall following a confidence-building pair of winners. Thankfully, he was unhurt.