There are three things in life that have the potential to make me leap out of bed in the morning; a round of golf, the Grand National and house fires. With the former two being preferred, this is an incredibly exciting time of year for me with the Masters at Augusta and the world’s greatest horse race, the Grand National. My first experience of the national was in 1992 at the age of 8 (nearly) when Party Politics reigned victorious. My granddad was fanatical about horse racing and his enthusiasm for racing and the Grand National in particular clearly rubbed off on me in a big way. In the years that followed I remember waking up in the early hours of the morning begging my father to go to the shops to buy the newspapers so that I could pick my horses. I would spend all morning looking through them trying to find the winner and nothing much has changed to this day. My imagination was set alight by the Grand National and I was buzzing for the whole day; particularly if I had found the winner. In actual fact I had a fairly prolific strike rate as an adolescent having backed Royal Athlete, Rough Quest, Earth Summit, Red Marauder and Bindaree. My thought process back then was simply to identify a horse which was likely to get round and would appreciate the marathon trip. Recent renewals have not been quite so kind, having backed only 3 winners in the last ten years, my finest of which was Amberleigh House when relieving William Hill of a nice amount using a £50 free bet as a student. No prizes for guessing what the money was invested in! Some people will argue that the Grand National is a lottery, but not me. I am a purist and believe that it is the ultimate analytical challenge for horse racing fanatics like myself. Furthermore, there are few things in life that can bring a nation together, but the Grand National is certainly one of them and this is one of the many reasons that the race is so special for me. This year’s renewal is as always hugely competitive and the modifications to the course in recent years have really opened up the winner’s enclosure to a new batch of potential Grand National winners. There is now less of a premium on sound jumping and more on having the ability to travel through the race. Sound jumping is still important but not as crucial as it has been in the past. A sound attitude and good level of concentration is also critical as incidents will happen around you and the electrifying atmosphere and nature of the course can set some horses alight. You need a horse that is likely to settle and that comes with experience, particularly at the course. Another increasingly important factor in finding big races winners is the nature of their preparation. My preference is to identify horses that not only have the requisite skills for the race in question but have also been laid out for the race. After all, success occurs when opportunity meets preparation. We only have to look at the number of big race Saturday winners that Paul Nicholls has had recently to know that this is true. Yes you need to be coming into the race with good form, but equally important is to arrive fresh and well. Other sports provide evidence for this point too. Tiger Woods in his prime had a very select campaign where he would prepare his game almost exclusively for the major championships. Likewise we see in football with the Champions League and Europa League that it is very difficult to perform at the top level in Europe midweek and then deliver domestically on the weekend. With this in mind I have focussed my attentions on six leading contenders for this year’s Grand National, most of which have been prepared for the race by trainer’s with a rich history of preparing horses for the big day. In my opinion there is no better trainer to prepare a horse for this race than Paul Nicholls, who won the race for the first time recently with Neptunes Collonges. All of his contenders are interesting, however Unioniste and Rocky Creek stand out for me. Both horses have had this race in mind for a long time. Unioniste ran a solid race when finishing sixth in the Hennessy on his first run of the season. That was a hot race and it was impressive that he was able to run so well on his seasonal debut given the way the form of the race has worked out, with the likes of the Druids Nephew and Djakadam in behind. He then went to Sandown and won a valuable handicap chase in grand style. Unioniste then ran in the Denman Chase at Newbury and you would have been forgiven for thinking he was a little disappointing at the time when finishing third to Coneygree. However, we now know that he simply ran into an extremely talented horse and was conceding weight to him. Ultimately he wasn’t beaten that far and so the form of that race has now been turned on its head. At only seven years old and appearing to be a dour stayer he ticks all the right boxes. Being by Dom Alco he would benefit from softer conditions but connections are confident that it isn’t crucial. He has a lot of weight to carry but does have a touch of class. Rocky Creek also arrives with a strong chance and should arguably be favourite for the race on recent form. He made his seasonal debut at Down Royal where he chased home subsequent Gold Cup third Road To Riches. He ran disappointingly in the Hennessy at Newbury when pulled up, for which there was no real explanation. However, his most recent performance when winning the BetBright Chase at Kempton was breath-taking. He was foot perfect, breezed through the race and won with any amount in hand. That run was the ideal prep run in my opinion on a flat track with sufficient time to recuperate. Paul Nicholls insists that he wasn’t finishing off his races last year and having had a wind operation he is now fulfilling his potential. He ran a super race in the national last season when leading until the second last and he arrives in better health and form than ever before and runs from a 2lb lower mark; he simply must have an outstanding chance. Phillip Hobbs also knows how to get one ready for the big occasion and has strong chances in the form of Balthazar King and Chance Du Roy. Balthazar King has run in the race twice and has finished 15th and 2nd. He is clearly adapting to the challenge of the course and his recent form in Cross Country races has no doubt helped him in this regard. When second last year he had previously won the Cross Country at the Cheltenham Festival and had carried top weight. That race simply must have left its mark on him and he surely could have gone even closer had he not run at the Festival which is the case this year. Furthermore, he covered more ground than any horse in the race, running out-wide for the vast majority of the race. He has been laid out for the race this season having run only once when winning a Cross Country race at Cheltenham in November. He runs from a 3lb higher mark and on decent ground he will be thereabouts. Chance Du Roy is my idea of a lively outsider for this year’s Grand National. You always need to have one of these on your side particularly with a light weight and Chance Du Roy fits the bill perfectly. He was sixth in the race last year having been hampered at Valentines on the first circuit. He won the Becher Chase in 2013 and ran well to finish fifth in the same race on his seasonable debut this year, staying on nicely in the closing stages. He then ran in a hot handicap chase at Exeter where he finished fifth behind the David Pipe trained Soll. That run would have put him spot on for this and the four horses that finished ahead of him that day were all winners next time out so the form couldn’t have worked out better. With the benefit of last years’ experience under his belt, slight relief from the handicapper and a targeted campaign this season he looks massively over-priced at his current odds of 40/1. He also goes on any ground. Grand National favourite Shutthefrontdoor has also been laid out for the race by trainer Jonjo O’Neill. He won the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse last season in good style. He has only had on prep run this season when winning a graduation chase at Carlisle impressively. Connections clearly belief that he is still on the right side of the handicapper and he is almost certain to go off favourite. In my opinion he will go off the shortest price favourite in recent history eclipsing the 5/1 starting prices about Clan Royal, Master Oats and Moorcroft Boy. The ‘McCoy effect’ is always pronounced in the Grand National but with the enhanced media coverage surrounding his retirement, the world and his wife will be set to back the Champion jockey in what could be his final race. My advice would be to put a significant bet on Shutthefrontdoor at around 8/1 (hopefully) on Betfair on the eve of the race and then lay it off a few minutes before the race for a nice risk-free profit (or to fund more selections!). Please be careful as you won’t be able to do this on the antepost market on Betfair as this will be suspended when the day of the race market is put on site and therefore you will not be able to trade out. Our final contender The Druids Nephew was tipped up by myself at the Cheltenham festival as being a well handicapped horse and he certainly didn’t disappoint when winning cosily at a nice price. He goes to Aintree as probably the best handicapped horse in the race. The manner of his performance at Cheltenham was hugely impressive. He traveled and jumped extremely well and was waited with until it was no longer possible. He eased to the front and won with plenty in hand. That race was clearly his target though and he will need to have recovered quickly for this extreme test of stamina. If his he jumps well he could go well for a very long way but ultimately I feel that despite being the best handicapped horse in the race fatigue will tell and he no longer has the services of Barry Geraghty who is side-lined with injury. All in all a fantastic renewal and let’s hope to have some luck with our selections: 2pts win ROCKY CREEK at 10/1 (General) 2pts win BALTHAZAR KING at 12/1 (General) 1pt win UNIONISTE at 25/1 (William Hill, Ladbrokes, Stan James) 1pt e/w CHANCE DU ROY at 40/1 (Betfair, Boylesports, Bet365) 5 places