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Retaining champion status in the Grand National is no easy feat. Indeed, the legendary Tiger Roll did so recently, winning successive renewals in 2018 and 2019, respectfully. But don’t let the Gordon Elliott-trained 12-year-old fool you — after all, the Gigginstown House Stud fan favourite was the first horse to win back-to-back editions of the National since the fabled Red Rum’s dual success in the 1970s.
The horse tasked with defending their title this year is, of course, Minella Times. History was made at the iconic Aintree last April, with Rachael Blackmore riding the then eight-year-old to glory in the four-mile, two-and-a-half-length contest — becoming the first female rider to win the National its lengthy 183-year history, while securing yet another major success for trainer Henry de Bromhead and a second victory in the race for owner JP McManus.
Glass ceiling after glass ceiling was smashed by the trainer-jockey duo at the latter end of last season, with De Bromhead landing an unprecedented Triple Crown at Cheltenham — winning the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup — while Blackmore took home the Top Jockey accolade with six winning rides — again becoming the first woman to win the sought-after Ruby Walsh trophy.
This year’s Festival wasn’t as successful on that front for the pair, with their overall winners halved. But records were still sent tumbling, as Blackmore rode A Plus Tard to a monumental victory in the prestigious Gold Cup — yep, you guessed it, becoming the first female to win the Cheltenham highlight race.
It’s becoming somewhat of a cliché in jump racing now it has been used so often, but the much talked about ‘Blackmore effect’, is, in fact, very real — there is no longer even an argument against it.
Minella Times was a 50/1 chance in the Grand National betting markets prior to Blackmore and De Bromhead’s successful Cheltenham Festival, with the bookies quickly slashing the McManus-owned horse down to as short as 11/1 as it quickly gained momentum from bettors.
There was a sense that Blackmore would prevail after her Cheltenham heroics, and she duly delivered — with shivers sent down the spines of millions as she passed the elbow with a lengthy advantage and stormed down the home straight to record an emotional victory in front of the frustratingly empty Aintree stands.
After getting a taste for victory in front of her adoring fans at Prestbury Park in March, unable to hold back the tears in the parade ring after winning the Gold Cup, Blackmore will be eager for a repeat of last year at Aintree, but Minella Times has left a lot to be desired so far this year.
A faller in the Punchestown Chase, his seasonal reappearance, the nine-year-old failed to finish again last time out — pulling up in the Leopardstown Handicap Chase in February. Poor form isn’t the only cause for concern though, Minella Times will also have to carry over a stone more than he did last April.
Still, De Bromhead is full of belief that Aintree will bring life back into the horse, claiming: “We found a couple of issues and have treated those. He worked nicely the other day and we believe we’ve got him back on song. He loved it last year and I’m hopeful Aintree will reignite him.
“He’s coming back to himself and we’ve worked hard to sweeten him up. He’s done a bit of cross-country and has been enjoying himself.”
It’s worth noting that everyone doubted A Plus Tard’s chances in the Gold Cup after he was beaten by Galvin in his last outing prior to the Cheltenham showpiece, yet there were no issues as he romped home over 15 lengths clear at the Festival.
On the big occasions, anything can happen. It would be no surprise if something just clicked for Minella Times and Blackmore in the National. It would be foolish to rule them out.